Security Theatre in New York

The NY Times reports on a weird trend in the city – mock police alerts.

“It goes something like this: On a typical block in, say, Midtown Manhattan, as many as 80 police cars quickly stream in out of nowhere, in neat rows, their lights and sirens going. The drills seem to take place on blocks with restricted parking, and each car executes a fast back-in parking job against the curb.

Sometimes, depending on the block, they park perpendicular to the curb; sometimes at a slant. The officers – scores of them – get out of the cars. They do not rush into a building. They do not draw their guns. They pretty much just stand around for half an hour or so. Then, officers pile back into their cars and, again in formation, the cars pull away from the curb and drive off.

I’m rather surprised that they don’t stock up on bottled water and canned all day breakfasts whilst they’re at it. Mind you, this says something about the strategic thought-process behind it:

“”He said they all gather at one point and then swarm an area,” Mrs. Wright said the officer told her. “See if there’s any terrorist activity going on.””

Well, that’s bound to do it. More seriously, this bears out a point of mine about security/civil defence that appeared on this blog last year. The distinction between security theatre and real preparation is public involvement. It’s a British tradition to mock emergency planning relentlessly (cf Zoe Williams in the Guardian the other day – according to her it is “an accepted truth” that nothing in the cold war public information leaflets would have helped. Really, Zoe? ), and what I know of the “Preparing for Emergencies” leaflet sounds like common sense, but I don’t think the government has taken it terribly seriously. Crucially, it hasn’t inspired the local authorities to do much, and they are the key. The problem with cold-war civil defence planning was that everyone imagined attack as being one big flash and out. Of course, if you are in the target area of a nuclear explosion nothing short of a deep bunker will help. But the point was the millions of people living on the edges of the targets. Even the practices in the much maligned Protest and Survive would have done them some good. Because no British government put a very high priority at the centre on civil defence, though, the local governments didn’t either and shared in the blanket slagging.

I suspect that Preparing for Emergencies could do better, but I have to say that it will probably do you more good than a cynical blog post in the event of attack.


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