Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger


Remember when an unattended package was just that, an unattended package? Remember when the airport was a place that evoked magical possibilities, not the anxiety of a full-body scan? In the post-9/11 world, we have become focused on heightened security measures, but do you feel safer? Are you safer?

Against Security explains how our anxieties about public safety have translated into command-and-control procedures that annoy, intimidate, and are often counterproductive. Taking readers through varied ambiguously dangerous sites, the prominent urbanist and leading sociologist of the everyday, Harvey Molotch, argues that we can use our existing social relationships to make life safer and more humane. He begins by addressing the misguided strategy of eliminating public restrooms, which deprives us all of a basic resource and denies human dignity to those with no place else to go. Subway security instills fear through programs like "See Something, Say Something" and intrusive searches that have yielded nothing of value. At the airport, the security gate causes crowding and confusion, exhausting the valuable focus of TSA staff. Finally, Molotch shows how defensive sentiments have translated into the vacuous Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site and massive error in New Orleans, both before and after Hurricane Katrina. Throughout, Molotch offers thoughtful ways of maintaining security that are not only strategic but improve the quality of life for everyone.

Against Security argues that with changed policies and attitudes, redesigned equipment, and an increased reliance on our human capacity to help one another, we can be safer and maintain the pleasure and dignity of our daily lives.


Although I mostly wander around to some very different places and topics, this book did begin with the events at Ground Zero. Living in downtown Manhattan and watching the towers collapse before my eyes, the bombing interrupted my day. There were less than two hours before the start time of my regular lecture at nyu, where I teach (Tuesdays and Thursday mornings that semester). My mind was busy with preparations. the inertia of life—cleaning up the breakfast dishes, preparing class notes—was in full force. But planes into buildings? People jumping from ninety stories? What was I do with this extraordinary in my ordinary? Move forward in deference to the life I had been living or stop and—stop and what? That’s a problem people face when disaster comes close by.

I also had some personal stakes. My partner of twenty-five years had set off that morning for a flight to Europe on United Airlines, and United, the news told us early on, was one of the airlines involved in the catastrophe. Was he on one of the planes? Was he stuck at Kennedy? Was he dead? Like the simultaneity of hot and cool breezes one can feel in coastal California when the Santa Ana winds blow hot desert air through the cool ocean breeze, things are oddly felt together. the private issue and public concern waft in and out, fear for a specific loved one and then back again to the public horror. Sometimes, and somehow, both at once.

This lived confusion is at least part of disaster response across the board and a basis for some of the investigations in this book. There is a need to do something, which is what being human is all about. We think and project forward. We rely on the sediments of past practice to make the next move. When something portending danger comes “out of the blue,” we are at sea: we cannot just roll onward with our past. Mental practice continues as before; we have no cognitive choice. But . . .

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