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The Burden of Anti-Terror Security

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"Boston exposes antiterror frailties," says the Washington Post.

Last Thursday, I arrived early for a breakfast meeting at a New York hotel, placed my briefcase and small travel bag down next to a desk in a corner of the small hotel library, and sat down to wait.

I left for a quick bio break, and walked past the breakfast room, noticing that my colleagues seemed to still be in their prior meeting. I poked my head in to say hello, and they greeted me warmly, ushering me quickly to my seat.

An hour later, remembering my briefcase and bag, I returned to the library. Both were gone.
"Are you looking for a travel bag?" asked a woman sitting at a nearby table, an executive with the hotel. She explained that security had whisked it away. Then she called the security office to say that the perpetrator had been found.

We chatted briefly about the new world order, and how unaccompanied bags suggest more than just a forgetful traveler these days.

"How long until they can bring them?" I asked.

"They should have them here shortly," she replied, a bit tersely.

Fifteen minutes later, my colleagues were waiting for me to join them in a taxi to another meeting.

"I have to leave now," I advised the hotel executive. "I can just pick the bags up when I return."

"I wouldn't do that, sir," she said stiffly, reminding me of my disciplinarian second grade teacher.

"I really do need to leave for my meeting. How much longer will it be?"

"They should be here shortly."

I got the feeling she used the term "shortly" quite a bit. It sounds responsive, but promises nothing. Is "shortly" a minute, an hour, or after I'm released from prison?

Her verbal discipline was another clue that my bags had caused a bit of tumult at the hotel. If I left, she seemed to be saying, my bags might well be destroyed. Or, worse, I might be. A suspected terrorist cannot be permitted to leave the scene intact.

Finally, after 30 minutes, the chief of security arrived, and escorted me -- thankfully -- to my bags. I was free to go. As I began to depart, he handed me a book they had found among my things. It had the word "HATE" in big red letters in the title. I was the author of the book. He nodded at me, as if to say, "This is why we were worried."

I understand; I truly do. You don't leave your travel bags in hotel lobbies, at airports, or along the routes of marathons these days. People have reason to be fearful.

Yet thousands of forgetful or careless people like me do so every day. The actual risk, while real, is substantially less than that posed by my taxi ride to the next meeting -- which was quite harrowing, by the way. It's just that we all know -- this is an unfamiliar, scary, mysterious threat, and it is socially inappropriate to treat it as casually as I did. I'm sure that guard worried about the fate of his children as he unzipped my bag to see what was inside.

That's why the headline on May 5 on the front page of the Washington Post concerns me: "Boston exposes antiterror frailties." It suggests that, once again, we are about to institutionalize fear, through visible new security steps, and invisible surveillance and intelligence gathering. Thanks to one angry young man allegedly acting with his younger brother, the terrorists are winning.

The objective of terrorist movements is not to kill, but to terrorize. If terrorists, who are few in number, can cause millions to fear them, they can provoke their enemies to victimize and kill innocent people in response. In extreme cases, they might even be able to lure them into wars against whole nations unrelated to the attacks, if their enemy's national leaders are easily manipulated.

Each time I remove some clothes and raise my arms for the airport scanners, I'm reminded how much power we've surrendered to the nation's security agencies. I don't deny the need for security, but much of it is a show for voters, not an effective anti-terror measure. A smart terrorist -- and I admit there are few -- would simply avoid the airport, and plant their bomb anywhere that people gather.

There are millions of venues they might choose. Each time they do, they pull our strings a different direction, luring us into overreactions that signal to everyone that the risks are much greater than they actually are.

Genuine dangers go relatively unnoticed. Reminders about them are tedious and dull. Three thousand people died on 9/11; three more died 12 years later in Boston. Meanwhile, every day, about 80 Americans die from gunshots, 100 in auto accidents, and almost 1,000 from the effects of obesity. That's 30,000, 40,000 and 300,000 every year. Bo-ring.

I should not leave my bags unattended. It scares people. I know that. Maybe it provokes them to put down their video games, fatty snacks, and iPhones, get off their asses, and move around a bit. But it frightens them, and that hurts us all.

The terrorists are winning. How can we stop them? It won't be the way we're doing it now.