I first heard the phrase “security theater” a few years ago from Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes about his industry with an inside edge. His meaning—that much of post-9/11 airport security has been devised for our psychological comfort rather than our physical safety—seemed familiar even if the phrase was new. At the start of the Cold War, American schoolchildren practiced a regimen of “duck and cover” to prepare for nuclear attack. Cowering beneath their wooden desks, they were told, would safely shield them from atomic annihilation. These authoritative claims were eventually repurposed as comedy. The 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe used archival footage to depict 1950s-era nuclear preparedness as national security’s homage to Lucille Ball.
Theater audiences laughed—but not from a secure location. Since the ’50s, the nuclear menace had grown with nuclear stockpiles, payloads, and the technologies to deliver them. Meantime, tensions between Washington and Moscow were often hair-trigger, a mood crystallized in President Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech. Yet decades of living under nuclear threat had also fostered a fatalism that tempered the jitters. Consensus may have eluded us (the nuclear-freeze movement was in full swing by 1982), but at least we could laugh in the face of existential peril. Perhaps someday we’ll muster a similarly cheeky response to the era of color-coded alarms, doofus bombers, and shoeless grannies shuffling through airports. For now, however, Americans seem too anxious to find much of anything amusing.