Thursday, November 19, 2015

Security Theater

In all the talk about whether to admit Syrian refugees, nobody I have seen has made what seems to me the most obvious argument. The U.S. hosts about sixty million tourists a year from all over the world. Does anyone seriously believe that any terrorist organization competent enough to buy or produce passports would find it difficult to get a dozen of their people in? That's about what a terrorist attack like the recent one in Paris requires.

As best I can tell, there simply is no practical way of preventing terrorists willing to die from killing Americans while doing so. Which makes the present antics of a majority of the House security theater.


pithom said...

David, remember the future. It's the second generation of Muslims that's more prone to becoming terrorists.

Yes, removing one source of risk is not removing them all. But that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

John T. Kennedy said...


But "removing one source of risk" is not justified if it entails doing tremendous harm to large numbers of innocent and peaceful prospective immigrants. And tremendous harm is done to them by preventing them from peacefully trading skills and goods in the market.

You have to count the harms to all parities.

pithom said...

That depends. 9/11 led to a lot of loss of freedom (and was done pretty much the way David describes, with impermanent visas). How much freedom could we lose from a Paris-style attack in the future?

Anonymous said...

The world does tremendous harm to innocent people all the time. It would be nice if the US government was competent to fix the harm it has in part caused in the Mideast. Allowing refugees with reasonable cause to hate America into the country would be a reasonable idea given a capable, honest, loyal governing class we could trust to assimilate them into our Melting Pot. We don't have that. We have feckless, corrupt twits running America. We have Democratic Party cadre who want dependent clients who will be more loyal to the Democratic Party than to the country as a whole. We have Republican Party cadre who want America to be a low-wage country- they want a big supply of labor relative to the demand of what remains of our industrial base. Democrats and Republicans have said this openly and repeatedly. It is the bipartisan consensus of the last half-century. It has successfully kept wages down in a period of increasing productivity.

This has done enormous harm to large numbers of innocent and peaceful American citizens. Importing terrorists just makes it worse.

John T. Kennedy said...


Sounds like a the government is harming you. That wouldn't justify you or the government interfering when I rent a room to a Syrian refugee.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if terrorists might be less keen to attack places where the citizens are armed? Of course when they have a bomb strapped to them, it's significantly more dangerous for someone to shoot them, but perhaps it would still enable a reduction in the number of lives lost - presumably the terrorist is trying to maximize deaths, and so being blown up at a time other than their choosing will probably result in fewer deaths than otherwise.

I also wonder if this kind of problem might be an argument for one of the more contentious libertarian ideas - privatized streets, roads, neighborhoods. Perhaps high streets would enact security measures. I don't imagine that a private street owner would be very keen to see a terrorist attack occur on his property.

sconzey said...

There's a couple of ways refugees are different from tourists:
1. Obviously, refugee status is permanent whereas a tourist visa is for 6 months.
2. Refugees may be subject to a lower level of scrutiny than applicants for a tourism visa.
3. Refugees may find it easier to travel with incomplete or fake documents-- who would deny refugee status to someone solely on the basis that their passport had expired? Yet good luck getting a tourist visa with an expired passport.
4. Travelling with refugees may offer the terrorist the opportunity to radicalise supporters; may find it easier to blend in.
5. As we're seeing, it costs more political capital to question granting refugee status than to issue a tourist visa:

Tibor said...

I generally agree with David here, but I think there are problems associated with refugees as well. I would be much more supportive of accepting refugees if I were convinced that the state can do a good enough job not to make them end up in ghettos living off welfare. This is a problem of money, obviously, because the welfare costs something (David noted a while ago that this might be a good thing in a sense of people being less willing to support the welfare state because of that...I am agnostic about whether that is true or not). It is a problem of crime, because there is always a lot of crime in these ghettos (and subsequently in the neigbouring areas) and at least from what I heard, there are de facto no-go zones in parts of France (France, with its inflexible and overregulated labour market does an even worse job than other countries in Europe at integrating and assimilating low-skilled immigrants) which the police simply tends to ignore unless it is strictly necessary to do something there. And it is these ghettos which can work as a recruiting grounds and a safe hub for possible terrorists.

It seems to me, that a more free-market economy your country has, the fewer problems if this kind you are going to have to deal with.

Generally, I think that one should either really accept no refugees at all, or accept them while liberalizing the economy significantly (probably much less of an issue in the US or Australia than in France or Belgium). The current mix of taking in people who are trapped in a situation with zero perspective while being despised by a significant part of the native population seems quite toxic to me.

And of course, one should check who really is a war refugee and who comes to Germany from Albania to get free welfare for a couple of months. If the die Welt's infographic ( scroll is in German, but should be easy to understand anyway even for those who do not speak German) is to be trusted (it probably can be, the source of the data is the federal bureau of migration and refugrees), then the "refugees" from the Balkans make up 40% of all refugees in Germany and only 30% come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also a little strange that two thirds of all asylum seekers are men.

Phil said...

John T. Kennedy

I'm sort of confused as to why they have to be brought to the US to help them

It’s estimated that just 10,000 Syrian refugees will cost the treasury $65 billion over their lifetimes in America. How many lives could be shielded for this money in Syria and Iraq?

What’s so important about admitting 10,000 winners of the political lottery while going through the motions with cursory air strikes in Syria and thus allowing millions to suffer? It’s moral preening..

August said...

These 33 or so governors would make more coherent sense if they got all competent, able bodied citizens trained and carrying firearms. This is something they can do. They can't keep people out like they pretend to. This is why I find them to be pathetic- they never do what they actually can do. They always find some gesture that is completely ineffective and often ends up setting us up for a court decision that nobody (except the left) likes in the future.

Laird said...

August, that's a silly argument. Most of the objecting governors are from states having relatively liberal concealed-carry laws already. And in the states which don't, the ability of a governor to do anything about that is limited: it requires political will by the legislatures, too.

Pithorn and some other commenters here are correct. Refugees are different than tourists in substantive ways, and in any event just because limiting (or eliminating) refugees wouldn't be a perfect solution to the problem isn't a justification for rejecting it. That's just another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Radical Islam poses a real threat to this country. It's not am immediate threat because the number of Muslims here now is relatively small. But as that number grows so will the risk. Muslims in general refuse to integrate into the larger society, and their core religious teachings are antithetical to western liberal values. In concentration they are toxic to a free society; there is not a single Muslim-dominated country in the world which has any tolerance for individual liberty, a functioning modern economy, or respect for the rule of law. The very last thing we should be doing is finding ways to increase their numbers here.

I feel sorry for the true innocents caught up in regional conflicts, but war in the Middle East has been the normal state of affairs for millennia, and nothing we do is going to change that. It's not my problem, and I don't want to make it so. If that sounds callous, too bad. It's the truth. If we really want to help these people we should do so there, not transport them people half way around the world to an alien culture into which they will never assimilate.

JWO said...

I think people are more worried about allowing Muslim to immigrate because of the very small number of their children (but greater than children of non-Muslims) who will be drawn to ISIS type movements and take part in a jihad attack. I can live with that risk because it is very small but that is what people I know are worried about. One guy pointed out to me that most of of the attackers were French citizens.

JWO said...

BTW maybe more people should carry long range pepper spray. One claims it can go 26 feet. People are reluctant to carry lethal weapons. We need more nonlethal weapons. hey inventors.

August said...


I don't think you grasp the nature of what's happening. You wouldn't see this as silly, but as a 'for example' thought, something very similar to which could be done- in particular states and if a governor was willing to play the emergency card. In some cases, a legislature may even be on board. But who cares? They won't even try.

The Republicans will find it impossible to play politics as they used to. In order to legitimize themselves, they will increasingly have to be seen as taking personal risks for their voters- and that risk will be exposure to the federal government. Politicians in the states should seek to directly mitigate the effects of the federal government, but I suspect they will leave things- like the unfortunate and increasing cost and mayhem of Obamacare- in full effect, hoping to use the situation to propel them to federal government.

They haven't figured it out yet. Maybe it takes Trump beating them for them to learn it. Meanwhile, libertarian cause is shot all to hell because nobody is going to pause and implement any principle- it will just be reminiscent of the fights between the Communists and the National Socialists.

Cathy Raymond said...

It's also worth bearing in mind that if you want to get a larger number of people than a dozen into the country, it may be easier to do so if they can be passed off as refugees.

David Friedman said...

To Cathy: About sixty million tourists come to the U.S. each year. How hard could it be to get ten, or twenty, or thirty, or ... in?

To Sconzey: Do you think al Qaeda or ISIS can't afford to buy or make fake passports? It's not like they have to be fake U.S. passports.

How much scrutiny do you think sixty million tourists a year can get?

Cathy Raymond said...

David: If you're watching points of entry to tourist locations, it will seem odd if you get a large number of folks of one nationality at any one location at any one time. That in itself would rouse suspicion.

The refugee situation may be seen by ISIS et al. as an opportunity to get a large number into the country, at specific destinations at the same time, with a built-in explanation that may discourage further scrutiny.

anonynous18 said...

I think that a complete opening of the borders (no passport, no questions asked) would improve security by itself. My argument is that muslim immigrants have, as a group, a good incentive to "police" themselves in order to control and stop the murderers among them.

This should go accompained by a complete liberalizations of weapons. Any person coming in the US should know that he must defend his own life and property, and that of their families and their neighbors. No criminals allowed, and it is your job as a citizen to spot and stop them.

On the other hand, it is unfortunately obvious that the people in the Government do not want competition in security of the people or in defending the law. Governments must have some control over commerce, money and movement of people, or life would be too tedious and quiet.

William said...

What if you set the problem up like this:

A refugee camp almost certainly has terrorists, and almost certainly has a higher per capita average than a tourist which we are facing the unknown.

The refugee camp is a known entity, tourism is not.

If I had to try to make a second argument it would be this:
The known entity of a refugee camp would help set up easier infrastructure to a prolonged terror campaign, and would probably do it quicker and more efficiently than by terrorists coming through other routes.

William said...

What if you set the problem up like this:

A refugee camp almost certainly has terrorists, and almost certainly has a higher per capita average than a tourist which we are facing the unknown.

The refugee camp is a known entity, tourism is not.

If I had to try to make a second argument it would be this:
The known entity of a refugee camp would help set up easier infrastructure to a prolonged terror campaign, and would probably do it quicker and more efficiently than by terrorists coming through other routes.

Gordon said...

" If you're watching points of entry to tourist locations, it will seem odd if you get a large number of folks of one nationality at any one location at any one time. That in itself would rouse suspicion."

That's why the terrorist tourists will not come through a single point of entry. They will come through many ports, and then travel through the country to unite, taking advantage of the lack of checkpoints at our state borders. Our motto shall be, "Kansas must be secured!"

Gordon said...

The current refugee vetting process takes 18 months. Have you ever seen a tourist wait that long in the customs line?

RKN said...

In all the talk about whether to admit Syrian refugees, nobody I have seen has made what seems to me the most obvious argument.

I have. It was Obama in fact.

Tibor said...

Phil: This is exactly why I find the current EU refugee policy so annoying and don't regard its proponents much higher than the "close all borders" crowd. I can understand that people want to help war refugees, I would prefer not to do it through the state, but if it has to be, so be it, there are far more costly and far less sensible things our tax money is being spent on. But then it should be done efficiently. I know it is naive to expect the state to work efficiently, but at least the people who are full of publicly expressed compassion and concern about the refugees should stop and think about it (unless, as I suspect, most of them, although probably not consciously, do so to signalize that they are the "good people" but care much less about actually doing good).

The estimated total cost of one refugee in Germany is 1000 per month (that includes the direct money transfers to the refugees, accommodation, language courses, medical costs and so on), although there is no exact number because it is also not really planned all that well. So let us say that the German media are grossly overestimating the cost and say that it is 500 only (unlikely, given that about 300 are the money they are paid directly each month, but anyway). That is almost the monthly (net) average wage in Turkey and also about a half of a yearly income of households targeted by the GiveDirectly charity ( And then there are costs of actually moving from Syria to Europe, which are quite high both financially and in terms of danger. If the same money was used to accommodate those 30% of actual war refugees from the ISIS conflict (the other 70% come either from the Balkans or Africa) in the neighbouring Turkey and otherwise given to a charity like Give Directly, then it would do tremendously more good (while producing no tensions in Europe where the future of the Schengen zone is now at danger and where the popularity of people like Marine Le Pen is rising).

Anonymous said...

The experience in Europe is that nearly half of the 'Syrian refugees' are not Syrian and most of them are not 'innocents' fleeing to safety.

Many are young males and many economic refugees.

Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, is full of sectarian and tribal factions with shifting allegences in conflict with one another. That means that those being 'persecuted' this week were persecutors last week and just lost the upper hand and decamped.

You are inviting in many young men, angry, with low/no skills with a history (for generations) of violence against one another, with different values, a different understanding of law and the habit of settling differences by ripping the other person's face off with a cheese wire.

Good luck.

Shawn Decker said...

I tend to very much agree with the perspective in David's original post.

Moving a step or two beyond this point, I am posting relative to a seemingly interesting mechanism for helping refugees and immigrants that I ran across a few days ago (sorry, I don't immediately have a link). I know very little about the program but the initial impression is a good one.


It is my understanding that the Canadian government has facilitated a program for 25 years or so in which private organizations can sponsor refugees / immigrants that pass federal background checks. In essence, the sponsoring organization (most likely institutions such as churches) are required to ensure support for the refugee / immigrant (family) for a period of at least 12 months ensuring that they have adequate housing as well as assisting them in making the transition to the new country. At least in the case of church sponsorship, it is quite feasible to see scenarios that include church members helping to find jobs for the new immigrants. It is my understanding that Canada has hosted on the order of ~ 60,000 immigrants in this fashion.

I seem to recall similar efforts in the midwest U.S. back in the 1970's and 1980's in which many churches would sponsor refugees and immigrants from southeast Asia (laos, cambodia, vietnam). One would often see a church with dozens, if not hundreds, of members who all had a real, vested interest in truly helping these immigrants. Inevitably, within the church you would see a handful of members who could offer some sort of job ... say, working as a stockman in the local hardware store or as a farmhand. Certainly not a career but at least a meaningful start while a handful of other church members would teach English and help with the other skills necessary for integration into society. My recollection is that this mechanism generally worked well.

Certainly this is a better approach that the ghettos / bureaucracy scenery that Tibor mentions. This strikes me as a pretty good mechanism ... both for the immigrant and for the community that hosts them.

I'm not one who is much for religious organizations, but one thing they do tend to do very well is take care of people in need.

David Gordon said...

President Obama made the comparison of refugees to tourists on the same day your post was published. Maybe he reads your blog!

Tibor said...

Shawn Decker: That sounds like it can work well. I think that the chief problem in Europe is its welfare state and less flexible work laws.

Here is an interesting statistic:

What is annoying is that, at least in Germany, the official (although now basically supported only by Merkel and the Green Party) story is that the asylum immigration is a chance to save the welfare system. Europe is dying out, that's right and the pension funds in most countries are Ponzi scheme (like in the US), but if most of these people end up dependent on long-term welfare handouts then they are hardly going to finance the welfare system. Since an estimated quarter of the current asylum seeking immigrants are even illiterate (in their own language), I don't think these numbers are going to improve.

What about Cyprus and the Czech republic? Cyprus is an interesting case. I don't know the make-up of immigrants there but the labour freedom (at least as measured by the heritage foundation index) does not seem to go much beyond the EU average. Czech labour freedom (83 points) is the second highest in the EU countries (Denmark is still higher at 92) and most of the worst performing countries rank somewhere around 50 (Sweden 52, France 43.5, Belgium 66, Netherlands 63). For comparison, the US score for labour freedom is 98.5 which is probably the highest in the world.

But that cannot be the whole story, since Danish labour laws are almost as liberal as the US (apparently) while the non-EU immigrant employment in Denmark is some 18% lower than among natives while in the Czech republic it is 6% higher than among natives (or rather citizens, which includes second generation immigrants, so the differences would possibly be bigger if one only included "ethnic Danes" unless the second generation does better than both their parents and the ethnic Danes...that is not likely). Also, Cyprus does even slightly better than the Czechs and their labour freedom ranking is 59.6.

Probably some other laws play a role. I think a crucial point is the Czech immigration law which excludes the non-EU immigrants from welfare for at least 5 years. I don't know how this is done on Cyprus.

Another thing is a different make-up of the immigration. Most non-EU Czech immigrants come either from Vietnam or Ukraine. There are very few immigrants from the Arab world. in Denmark, most non-EU citizens probably come from the Arab world (I have not checked it though, so look it up if you want to be sure).

People get often labeled racist when they suggest that immigrants from some countries are better than others (controlling for age,education,...) but there is more to a country than an ethnicity (and in some countries, like the US, ethnicity has very little to do with nationality), there is, above all, culture. So a different cultural make-up of the immigrants in the countries might also explain a lot. I would expect the laws to still account for more, but one would have to do a bit more research to estimate how much important cultural background is and how important the right or wrong incentives created by the law and liberality of the labour laws in the country are.

montestruc said...

I think the estimate is only of costs, and ignores tax revenue and interest. I suspect that an honest assesment would have them as a net profit center.

montestruc said...

Cathy, take the example of the 9/11 hijackers. They did not all fly in together, they went in groups of 2-5 maybe into different US cities. They kept in contact by cell phones and email.

Had they needed to foucus on one target, they could drive in rented (or stolen) autos.

You just cannot effectively stop such an attack in a free society. What you can do is promise to retaliate in ways they really will not like.

That we are not doing.

RP Long said...

Another name for "second generation immigrant" is "native-born American." If the threat to America is not from immigrants, but rather from native citizens, then our government's anti-terrorism activities should be focused on reducing domestic terrorism, not on preventing immigration. If.

Friedman is right that there is an element of security theater here. Another element here is of immigration theater. We are talking about 10,000 refugees, or 0.2% - 0.3% of the total number of displaced Syrians in need of a legal status in some country. That number is greater than 0%, sure, but I can't help but wonder how many people who favor immigration will consider it a victory for immigration. :/

Ernie said...

If ISIS or any jihadist group could sneak easily sneak infiltrators as tourists, then one would expect after 180,000,000 tourist visits in the last 3 years that the authorities would have arrested at least a few TTs (tourist terrorists) in that time. That is arrests, after infiltration. We have seen arrests before infiltration (UK plane bombers), but I don't recall any arrests of terrorists that came in to the US as tourists. (That doesn't mean none have occurred, just that the frequency hasn't caused media interest.)

I would conclude from this evidence that, although possible, tourist infiltration has very high costs, compared to other forms of infiltration e.g. illegal border crossings or political asylum grants and that terrorist organizations have chosen not to use this method.

Allowing widespread immigration of political refugees can only lower the costs of infiltration. As with all actions, lowering the costs will enable producers to produce more of them with the same resources. It may also cause more resource expenditures for the action as well.

I can't answer the empirical question of whether the costs of controlling or even preventing widespread immigration, will raise the costs of infiltration enough to reduce infiltration a little, a lot, or not at all. I don't believe enough information exists to allow anyone to make that determination. Although, thinking about the problem this way seems to indicate that the gov't or some other agency, would find it worthwhile to investigate.

We do know that the terrorists find new avenues to exploit, as current avenues become costly, Given a level of resources, the terrorists will find the next best alternative as soon as the most effective avenue closes. So, any action we take will not "eliminate terrorism" unless the action closes all possibilities, which I believe would have very, very high costs.. We can only hope to reduce terrorism and even then, the reduction could have costs that far exceed the benefits.

If the politicians continue to mouth sentiments of closing the borders, vetting the refugrees, etc without taking action or without looking at the costs and benefits, the they are performing "security theatre". Calling it that now attributes motives to the politicians, for which David may have mounds of evidence. But that evidence has nothing to do with the ease of tourist infiltration.