Princeton University Press
By Nicholas Nassim Taleb,
This coming August, Richard Reid turns 40. Astonishingly, it is now more than 12 years since Reid, now an inmate of the “supermax” prison in Colorado, tried to detonate a shoe bomb on a flight from Paris to Miami, ushering in the era of compulsory footwear checks at all American airports.
For the youngest air travellers, these edgy anti-terror rules (see also, most obviously, the ban on large containers of liquids in hand luggage) are how flying has always been. Yet it is increasingly commonplace to hear specialists arguing that the crackdown hasn’t made us any safer.
More people have almost certainly died in car crashes since 9/11, as a result of being put off flying by the attacks of that day, than died on 9/11 itself.
“We have made air travel an unending nightmare, [creating] a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple,” wrote a regretful Kip Hawley, former head of the much-despised United States Transportation Security Administration, a few months ago. Each new ban on a given item, he pointed out, merely “gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack”.
There are all sorts of political reasons for this mess. But the deeper explanation, the security expert Bruce Schneier argues, is that we confuse the feeling of security with the reality of reducing risk.
The “security theatre” of modern airports makes us feel better, without making us more secure. Indeed, it arguably makes us less secure, swallowing up resources that might otherwise be spent on more effective measures, and making airport staff, focused on finding oversized bottles of shower gel, less alert to genuinely suspicious behaviour.
“Security is both a feeling and a reality,” as Schneier has put it, “and they’re not the same”.
But this desire for a feeling of security doesn’t only lure us into irrationality when it comes to air travel: it lures us into irrationality all the time.
We live, we are constantly being reminded, in highly insecure times; huge swathes of our personal lives and our politics, in response to everything from the eurozone crisis to climate change, are directed by the quest to feel secure.
But those responses, all too often, are counterproductive. Afraid of physical dangers, people move to gated communities, thereby undermining community cohesion and increasing the potential for more danger. Climate denial, one might similarly argue, is a way not to feel terrified about the fate of the environment, yet makes things worse — though the same might be said for giving up plastic shopping bags, then imagining you have “done your bit”, and need do no more.
The quest to feel secure helps explain the political appeal of “austerity” economics: tightening the purse strings can feel like the safe and cautious path.
And it is why, as liberals ought to acknowledge, the National Rifle Association’s recent call for armed guards in all American schools will strike many gun rights advocates as perfectly reasonable. Guns do make many people feel more secure. They just don’t make them safer in reality.
Part of the explanation for this puzzle lies in the “cognitive biases” with which natural selection has endowed us — ways of thinking that made sense for prehistoric humans, but that don’t make sense today. Take the so-called “availability bias”, which describes our tendency to be more scared of threats we can vividly bring to mind (such as terrorist attacks) than those we can’t (such as heart disease, or road accidents).
Long ago, such a bias might have been a sensible mental shortcut: if you could picture a certain threat vividly, that was probably because it had occurred a few yards from you, in the place where you lived, and fairly recently. Being especially alert to such threats was wise.
These days, that is no longer the case. Seeing a television news report about a terror attack on foreign soil, you might abandon plans for an overseas holiday, in order to hold on to your feeling of safety — when in truth, spending too much time on the sofa watching TV might pose a far greater threat to your life.
Three very different books published last year might help us rethink our troubled relationship to insecurity. In “Against Security”, the New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch focuses on “airports, subways, and other sites of ambiguous danger”, arguing that in the long run, treating strangers with more kindness and less suspicion, rather than assuming the worst of every traveller, would actually increase security.
Nassim Taleb, in his exasperating but compelling book “Antifragile”, praises “things that gain from disorder” — people, policies and institutions designed to thrive on volatility, instead of shattering in the encounter with it. (That the misanthropic Taleb seems to demonstrate increasing fragility when being interviewed by journalists is curious, but hardly undermines his point.)
And in “Daring Greatly”, Bren Brown, a professor of social work who specialises in the psychology of vulnerability, considers the many ways in which “the courage to be vulnerable” is a precondition for fulfilling relationships, good parenting, conflict resolution and creative expression.
“The truth that many people never understand,” as Thomas Merton wrote in his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, “is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to trouble you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”
As Merton’s words indicate, the real problem with the quest for security is more than a matter of out-of-date cognitive biases. Rather, it is the ancient truth brilliantly expressed by the guru/philosopher/jester Alan Watts, in his 1951 book “The Wisdom of Insecurity”: the search for a feeling of security is what causes the feeling of insecurity in the first place.
The essence of life is flux and impermanence, and “if I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life,” he wrote. “Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure in other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.”
It would be easy to interpret this as appallingly glib. “Embrace insecurity”, after all, sounds like exactly the sort of message that the chancellor of the exchequer might find cynically helpful to inculcate in a society facing ever more precarious circumstances.
Were he still around, though, Watts would presumably say that this misses the point. Our woes have their roots in security-chasing to begin with: politicians wanting to feel safe, bankers wanting to feel safe, voters wanting to feel safe.
And truly to embrace insecurity wouldn’t mean resignation in the face of social or economic inequity; it would simply entail the recognition that chasing the feeling of security isn’t the way to solve them. Insecurity is the only condition in which any change — the good stuff as well as the bad — can happen.
“To put it still more plainly,” Watts wrote, “the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing.” Here is to a less security-fixated 2013.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Oliver Burkeman’s “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” was published recently.