Security Theater

Security theater is the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to achieve it. Researchers such as Edward Felten have described the airport security repercussions due to the September 11, 2001 attacks as security theater.


Security theater works because people tend to have unrealistic expectations from not understanding the facts of the matter, and/or not wanting to accept their conclusions.

There is a way to fly safe. My system is very simple, 100% guarantees nobody will ever be injured by in-air terrorism again, and may in fact create a more pleasant flying environment for everyone.

Brave New World

First, you take away everyone’s clothes and issue them standard single-use coveralls. Second, you hook everyone up to an IV and sedate them for the entire flight. Third, you stack them up like wood in racks, and then you take off. Maybe we need some adult diapers… still working on the details… but basically if you took this approach you would never have another in-air incident again and no aircraft could ever be taken over from inside. I would rather be knocked unconscious than fly on a lot of airlines anyway.

Some people though would find this to be inconvenient

Therein lies the problem. People insist on something that is impossible to deliver: complete security. This is the core of all of the problems. Then the thing that combines with this is that people don’t want to be inconvenienced. Some of those little inconveniences involve important issues like freedom, liberty and human rights against a totalitarian government… so please don’t get me wrong here. 

Back to the plane example, where the whole thing goes off the rails is that people force the government to deliver on a promise which is impossible: 100% security, and then furthermore they tell the government, deliver that while only delivering me some minor inconvenience.

People will not wake up to the reality that the problem is not so easily solved, and if it was solved, it would not be done with minor inconvenience. It would be done through completely losing your liberty as in this example above.

You could cure the world of terrorism overnight if you could hook people up into the Matrix, keep them sedated and feed them happy thoughts.

The medicine in this case though is worse than the disease. It’s curing cancer by putting the patient in the electric chair.

The implications

I get a couple different types of request on my website. One of these tends to go along this path…

I want a nice sword… but I have a small budget just get me something reasonable.

(Learns a bit).

I want a Kamakura sword… they sound good. Oh and by a good smith.

(Learns a bit more).

Swords have flaws? Oh, I don’t want one with flaws.

(Learns a bit more).

I definitely want one with a signature. And history.

(Learns a bit more).

I don’t like shortened swords.

(Learns a bit more).

I want one with a lot of activity.

(Learns a bit more).

And a powerful shape.

So over time and a dozen emails I am delivered this request: to find a flawless 750 year old Kamakura period blade that is the heirloom of a daimyo and has not been shortened, and retains its signature by a Kamakura grandmaster with a powerful shape and a lot of activity.

Oh and by the way, I have a small budget. 

When I try to explain that you cannot have all of these things and deliver within a small budget, it disappoints. The heart is now set on all of these max aspects and no other sword will do. Every sword that bears some marks of its age, that it was a tool, used, abused, brought to the battlefield, got scarred, returned, fixed, rusted, polished and handed down finally in a retired state… they are no longer perfect and none of them will do. 

Only this:

Ayanokoji Sadatoshi, ubu tachi, Kamakura period, Kokuho

Or this:


Saburo Kunikune, Kamakura period, ubu tachi, Tokubetsu Juyo

And there is no argument from me. Should we all be so lucky to have a collection full of those but they are million dollar items. 

As with the security theater situation, there is an important aspect of retaining realistic goals that needs to be factored in. 

A sword that is less than premium length is not no good. It is a parameter of a sword that is less than ideal so modifies the price. Same with suriage or a fukure or anything else that may be less than ideal. On balance, we generally accept these condition issues and then compute the price. Each sword has strong points and weak points and, on balance, we hope for more strong points and few weak points and that in the final computation of the price it is affordable.

Even a show-stopping problem like a hagire is not truly show stopping as long as all of the rest of the package shows a lot of strength. Ask yourself, would you throw away an heirloom Masamune blade that has spectacular activity and health everywhere for a 1mm hairline crack in the cutting edge? This hagire fault makes a blade undesirable for one reason: it can no longer be used as a weapon as it will be subject to fracture at that point of the hagire. There is no reason above or below that. It is purely a functional decision.

Unless you intend to use this Masamune, you have nothing to risk from the hagire. Even if the zombie apocalypse comes, you are going to look to your sword collection and think well, the Masamune is too nice to use for killing zombies, I better grab the Mino Kanefusa, they are good reliable fighting blades. Hagire or not, that Masamune is going to stay on the rack because it’s just too damn good.

This is not written in defense of hagire. They are fatal flaws and make many blades worthless. This is only to make sure that people understand why a hagire makes a blade valueless so they can put it into context when they encounter something. Your brain is supposed to be an intelligent agent capable of evaluating unusual input and coming up with a variable conclusion. That’s what makes you different from an amoeba. The amoeba obeys a simple set of rules: poke it and it will move away. Put food in front of it and it will eat. Give it enough food and it will reproduce. Simple rules, simple conclusions. 

Unfortunately a lot of people don’t get too far away from the amoeba in every day life and that’s why the government delivers security theater to us.

That gets to the second point.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Security theater works first off because people want to be lied to. They want the warm comforting feeling above all. They want to be separated from the unpleasant truth. The unpleasant truth in this case is that no, we cannot protect you. Yes, there is some risk to you every time you open the door and go out into the world. There is another factor there in that as soon as you ask a higher powered agency to lie to you, they will gladly lie to you then lead you around by the nose by this desire of yours.

Leaders: Oh you want to feel safe?

I am the one who can make you feel safe.

Just do whatever I tell you to do.

The public: Oh, yes!

So you get two people complicit in this system of lies which is meant to make you feel good.

It’s usually easy to spot an American in an airport outside of the USA because they are the ones in the line who are quickly taking their shoes off. I have seen it happen many times and the security agents saying no no, put your shoes back on. 

This conditioning is in response to fear, and the fear is taken away by the security theater that somehow taking your shoes off when you go through a scanner is making you more safe. It’s not, it’s just a gesture so that people feel that the governments of the world are on top of the problem.

One of the things that airport scanners are really good at doing is identifying bottles of water. These bottles of water are taken away and this for some reason makes people feel safe. So, we all put up with it. 

It is theater.

It’s there to make you feel like something is being done. 

Yes, some reasonable precautions do need to be taken. Metal detectors that stop guns from getting on board: I am all for it. 

But the more ridiculous things like shuffling around in your socks and throwing away a bottle of liquid that is 101 ml while getting to keep one that is 100 ml, this is the theater aspect.

Coming back to swords: we need to understand that attributions are attributions. I lost a sale once because I would not say more than the NBTHK said on a blade. The NBTHK said that this blade was made by the Aoe school and that the kinzogan mei of Sadatsugu was something the Honami did in order to separate out an Aoe school blade that was superior vs. all other great blades of the school.

That is the truth of the matter. So the buyer should have been able to understand this:

  1. Attributions are inexact science. They are best efforts, based on tradition, documented blades that do not exist anymore, the shifting scene of new discoveries and new research.
  2. They are opinions.
  3. We don’t have a time machine so we cannot verify the truth on any particular blade about who made it and when. We go on best efforts.

The customer basically put me in a position of having to pick explaining the details of the complicated and uncomfortable truth, vs. saying one simple thing.

Sadatsugu made it.

I wouldn’t do it.

I lost the sale.

Customers who engage in this kind of thing set themselves up. They will keep shopping until they find someone who tells them the sweet little lie. That is the moment they will buy. 

Tell me if this sword is right for me. I trust you.

Jesus Mary and Joseph DO NOT DO THIS.

You’re writing the word SUCKER on your face and then walking around asking people what you should buy. 99 times out of 100 when I explain the details to this kind of customer and all of the truth, including the awkward parts and the difficult to understand parts, their eyes glaze over and off they go to someone else. 

It’s not that they actually want to know if the sword is right for them. 

They are saying: tell me that sweet little lie. Tell me that you thought it out for me. Tell me that you have pre-chewed my food and made the decision for me. Tell me that everything is going to be OK. But most importantly:

I want you to be responsible for this decision.

And therein lies the last problem with security theater. People want to place all responsibility with someone else for any negative consequences.

If an airport blows up, it’s the government’s fault. It’s not because you blindly voted in a bunch of people who told you simplistic lies to get your votes and then acted in ways to piss off 90% of the world and now you’re experiencing what happens when you make enemies… no it’s just a simple problem with a simple solution and someone else is to blame for it. It is discharging repsonsibilty.

Do not discharge your responsibility.

Do not walk in to a dealer and say choose for me

Do not ask the dealer to make unrealistic promises. 

Do not set your goals into unrealistic places and then set your budget level at the price of a smart phone and then put it in the dealer’s lap and say set me up with something that meets all of these criteria.

Because the end problem is: any honest dealer is not going to be able to meet unrealistic goals. They are going to tell you all those things that you do not want to emotionally accept and you do not want to hear. The only person who will nod and say yes, yes, yes, I can do all that when given unrealistic goals is someone who is reading that word SUCKER on your forehead and salivating.

It cuts both ways

This is not to say that the dealer has no responsibility and that everything is for the customer to decide. The above is a bell I am ringing so that people can walk into a transaction fully awake instead of sleepwalking.

Dealer tricks include saying, “Well this is what I think, I don’t know for sure, you should do your own research.” This is weird because it is 100% true. You do need to do your own research. You should not be relying on the dealer. But it’s a trick because very often they do know and that is the part where people trust. 

If someone with no conscience is selling a fake Shinkai, they more than likely know. They ran that blade down, they tried really hard to get the signature verified, because they want to be the ones to buy it for $5,000 and then get it validated through Juyo and then sell it for $100,000. That’s what dealers do. That’s in the job description. Collectors do it too. We exchange stories about people who did this and we all sign and say, wow, wish it was me. Both for the thrill and for the financial benefit. It’s always a combination of the two.

But the point is: that guy probably knows.

When the blade does not work out, everyone does the exact same thing: they dump it back into the market. 

Now it becomes someone else’s problem and when it’s sold, rarely does the seller admit that they chased down all the options and were told that it was fake. 

If it has bad old papers and they couldn’t get new papers for it, they don’t say they tried. They don’t say they showed it to all their friends and to other experts and everyone went phew, that stinks. They don’t say they ran it by Tanobe sensei and he shook his head no. They don’t say they that not a single expert anywhere in the world agreed with what was written on this blade, so now they are putting the fish back into the water with the bad old paper that it originally swam in with. 

They say, “I don’t know for sure. You should do your own research.”

Bear in mind again, that this could entirely be the case. Maybe they don’t know. They probably know, but probably is not 100%.

You as a buyer though, it’s not for you to corner the seller. It’s for you to just not give into your greed and think it’s your lucky day and this guy is gifting you something and selling you something that is worth more than what it’s being sold for.

The dealer is actually responsible for telling you what they know. If they did run it up and down the island of Japan looking for answers, they should tell you this. If they know the paper is no good, they should destroy the paper. I have done this. You should find someone to deal with that you can trust on this matter. That is something that they can verify with personal experience.

If your goal is to ask them on a mumei Ko-Yamashiro blade, did Sanjo Munechika really make this? I will buy it if you say yes, I will not buy it if you say no… that is where you are doing it wrong. You will walk away from every honest dealer with honest answers and you will find someone who will tell you the sweet lie you want to hear and then you will do all your buying from that person. If you walk in and your mindset is built all around: please tell me simple things that satisfy my emotions and make me feel warm and fuzzy or else I am not going to buy from you. 

It’s also not fair to put another person in that boat, to make them test their ethics. If you walk in and say look, I understand and I can put things in perspective. Tell me what you think, and I’m not holding my money hostage waiting for promises that cannot be realistically delivered on, you will probably get a sigh of relief and hear the straight dope. It all depends on what you have prepared your brain to handle.

If you want lies: you will eventually find lies. If you want the truth: you will find that too. 

Ultimately you benefit if you can handle the truth. If you can handle reality then all mysteries will vanish before your eyes. The curtains will be drawn back and you can proceed into deeper levels of knowledge and study. 

As long as you can’t handle it, you will be lead around by your desire to hear safe answers and you will live in a candy colored dreamworld of fog and nonsense. 

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

— John Heywood, collection of proverbs, 1546

So that’s on the books for 500 years. It’s referring to handed down proverbs that come down to us since forever. That tells you about how deep in the human subconscious is this desire to resist the truth, even when it’s beneficial to us. 

It’s for you to choose what you want to be at the end of the day. Stubbornly refuse that water or to take a long drink of reality.