The public’s right to know or the public’s right to be safe? Preserve civil liberties at all costs or err on the side of caution? These questions, honestly asked, are at the heart of debates over how best to preserve both our safety and our liberties in an age of terrorism and violence.
Some time ago, an ideal test case for these questions played out here in Texas, where the Dallas Cowboys tried to fight requests (that entered the legal system and fast became demands) for public release of the plans for their new $650 million stadium in Arlington.
Their rationale? Both security and business concerns.
The problem? At least $325 million, and likely a lot more, is coming out of taxpayer pockets, and the city used eminent domain to force homeowners to sell their property to make way for the new stadium. Whoever has their name on the lease, the stadium is in many ways public property and should be considered only nominally the Cowboys’ property.
The Cowboys and their advocates argued that both proprietary business interests and security concerns should have allowed them to keep the information secret. Yet, for the public, the Cowboys sacrificed their proprietary business claims as soon as they stuffed their snouts in the public trough. The Cowboys’ claim so reeked of arrogance that it almost overwhelmed all of the other arguments about security. It is increasingly common for professional sports teams to suckle at the public teat and then turn around and pretend that they owe that same public nothing because they are fundamentally engaged in private enterprise.
Billionaire owners want to have the public pay for their opulent facilities, in which the former will charge exorbitant prices for tickets and concessions. The public is slowly learning, just like the poor guy who stands in line at halftime to spend $60 for a gelatinous pile of food and drinks, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Or a half-billion dollar stadium.
But the other claims, those tied to security, are less temporal and thus gave pause. After all, we now know the plans for the stadium, but security will be an enduring concern. I’ve argued for years, even before 9/11 and the occasional recent news of potential attacks at football games (always revealed to have been a hoax, but such hoaxes still remain all too credible), that stadiums on game day or concert night are among the most vulnerable targets for terrorist attacks: tens of thousands of people in a celebratory mood, unwary and focused on something else; screaming crowds; loud public address announcers; amps at rock shows; lots of drunk people; showy but largely perfunctory security. Providing diagrams and blueprints to terrorists, whether Islamist or of the home grown variety (Many in the U.S. seem to have forgotten about the Eric Rudolph, Ku Klux Klan, Tim McVeigh, Unabomber, Charles Whitman types), does appear shortsighted at first blush. The public does not have the right to know everything.
Then again, someone with malicious forethought can take plenty of time to plan an attack upon an open stadium. Providing diagrams that, once a stadium opens, will be available anyway hardly seems like a serious breach of either public safety or security. The danger will not come from terrorists simply knowing a stadium’s layout, however essential that might be to a planned attack, but rather from terrorists who are able to identify and exploit weaknesses and security flaws.
Prevention of a stadium attack will come in the form of vigilance, intelligence, and competence, rather than slapdash and showy efforts to appear tough. A little sanity would also go a long way in bringing a level of reasonableness to our discussions. When you enter a stadium on a hot day and are drinking a bottle of water, scare stories from the news notwithstanding, the odds that your water will become a deadly weapon are almost nil. It is hard not to be cynical about a policy that happens to profit the concessionaires who sell overpriced drinks without demonstrably increasing safety. It also inspires less, not more, confidence if our official approach to matters of terrorism and security seems reactive to news stories or rumors rather than part of a rational and comprehensive strategy. Meanwhile, if I had hidden a gun in my waistband, security would not have noticed because they did not bother checking. In terms of odds, I would surmise that an attack at a big game will more likely come from someone wielding a gun than someone wielding a half-empty bottle of water.
We are similarly foolish and shortsighted in our approach to security at airports, where appearing vigilant and tough on potential terrorism has taken the place of commonsense policies that will actually make us safe. A batty Englishman tries to light a shoebomb, and now we all have to take our shoes off at security. There are rumors that terrorists are going to try to use small amounts of liquid explosives, so we develop an inane policy whereby we can take on a few ounces of liquid in small containers that we must place in a plastic bag. In your shaving kit? It’s a menace to the airways. In a ziplock? We can all breathe easier. And then there is the water issue again–if you try to bring a bottle of water or juice or soda through security, you’re going to lose it. But don’t worry, you can buy any drinks you want at the usurious rates the airport concessionaires are able to get away with charging. You can even buy an extra hot venti coffee right before you board–a potentially more lethal weapon than all of the aftershave and Nikes and half-consumed Ozarka water. But woe unto you if you forget to take your laptop out of its case or if you are impatient with a security person because your child is crying and you’d rather attend to her than to the guy who randomly pulled you out of line for a perfunctory pat-down.
Texans take football seriously. They take travel seriously. They take terrorism seriously. But there is a difference between serious and foolish. The Cowboys finally released the plans to the enormous new stadium, as was inevitable. Thus far, nothing bad has happened to Jerry Jones’ gleaming jewel. And if terrorists ever do attack the new stadium, the blame will fall on our scattershot, improvised, shoddy policies and lack of foresight because we were preparing for the last attack rather than the next one.