This morning as I ate breakfast, policemen swarmed through the adjacent street and the road was blocked off by yellow caution tape. They were all present for a small but suspicious package, perched precariously atop a car with an unidentified license plate which could not be matched with a California vehicle.
In pajamas my dad and I evacuated the house, taking a phone and house keys, glancing nervously over our shoulders at the empty street and the policemen who had assured us that a bomb squad was on their way.
Thirty minutes later we received a message that the 'suspicious package' was a lunch that a husband had packed for his wife who worked in the synagogue across the street. He left the lunch on top of her car so that he wouldn't disturb her. We returned to our house shaken, but the evacuated Temple members had all gone home.
As we settled back into our house and the street was once again opened to cars and pedestrians, I thought about how this would not have happened even two years ago. The culture of fear is built up to an unprecedented level. A few days before, I noticed armed guards standing outside the synagogue. In previous years the sanctuary had been easily accessible. Now it radiated a sense of hyper-awareness.
We would all like to believe that the heightened level of security primarily protects against terrorists and the mentally ill or violent individuals. However, the evidence that it does is scarce. In fact, heightened security measures are designed almost exclusively to create the illusion of safety, such as in the case of the TSA security measures taken after 9/11. In a popular youtube series called "Adam Ruins Everything," the ineffectiveness of what it dubs 'security theater' is uncovered. In essence, the showy security measures are more present to keep the illusion of protection than to actually guard against terrorists. And in case you were wondering, Jason Harrington, a former TSA agent, claims that the TSA does indeed drink the alcohol they confiscate at the checkpoint. The real precautions taken against airborne terrorist attacks are much more subtle, and include unseen measures such as added air marshals, heightened awareness, and intelligence agencies that work to stop attacks preemptively.
On one hand, it was reassuring to me that the police were so quick to respond to a suspicious package placed outside my house. On the other hand, I am also aware that the storm of heightened security measures are not what is actually keeping me safe. No matter how many armed guards stand ready to protect the occupants of the building, no protection is foolproof. The likelihood of a terrorist attack is extremely low, but if one were to happen, impressive-looking guns will not make much difference. What this show does accomplish is creating large, fearful spectacles out of small and insignificant stimuli.
If security theater makes you feel safe, that's completely fine. Even knowing all this, I still was grateful for the police's quick response. But for many, instead of creating a sense of safety, it instead promotes a fearful environment in which attacks are always on the horizon. The TSA checkpoint, instead of reassuring us that we are protected, reminds us that any of our fellow passengers could be harboring lethal plans. Instead of assuring temple congregants that they are protected from violent religious extremists, it reminds them that they are constantly under threat for being religious. And instead of making me feel protected from bomb threats, the presence of the police and the urgent evacuation made me feel unsafe in my own home.