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MLB's Metal Detector Policy is What 'Terrorists Winning Looks Like'

In 2015, every MLB stadium will require fans to walk through metal detectors for reasons that make no sense to security experts.
Photo by Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

The end of the baseball season this weekend will mark a bunch of milestones: the close of Derek Jeter's career, the likely conclusion to the Royals' 28-year postseason drought, the last time Mets fans will be able to blame Matt Harvey's absence for why their team sucks. But if you're the kind of baseball fan who actually likes going to baseball games, mark down Sunday for another reason: it's the last time you'll be able to enter a big-league ballpark without being subjected to a metal detector.


Security measures have been on the rise all across sports for years now, of course — who can forget the Yankees' attempts to keep their fans safe by banning umbrellas and sunscreen? But last winter MLB significantly upped the ante, ordering every team to either install walkthrough metal detectors or place security staff with wands at all entrances by the start of the 2015 season. According to an MLB spokesperson, most teams are putting in—or have already put in—airport-style walkthrough gates (with individual wanding available for those who'd rather wait in line for a more personalized screening), meaning emptying pockets into plastic bins will soon become part of the standard pre-game ritual.

Fans mostly seem to have taken the new regulations in stride, grumbling only a bit at the prospect of longer delays to get to their seats. But better safe than sorry, right?

Well, sure. Except that according to those who've actually studied security measures, there is zero evidence that metal detectors are going to make anyone safer. In fact, it's even possible that new security measures could make sports fans less safe.

But metal detectors are everywhere now, so they must be doing something positive, right? When the Washington Post's Wonkblog tried to answer this question last year, they found that vanishingly few researchers are actually trying to find the answer to that question—as they put it, "barely any of the terrorism literature even tries to answer questions about effective counterterrorism." And the handful of studies that have been conducted into the efficacy of scanners have found that, at best, they merely divert terrorists into trying other things: when airports began installing tougher security screenings, plane hijacking fell, but other kinds of "bombings, armed attacks, hostage taking, and events which included death or wounded individuals" rose by an even greater margin.


Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

Alabama economist Walter Enders, who co-authored most of the metal detector studies, says the lesson is clear. "The people who want to do harm could substitute out and do something else instead. So you don't hijack an airplane, but you hijack the Achille Lauro. You substitute the next best alternative."

Enders says that the main effect of tighter security at stadium entrances will likely be to drive any hypothetical attackers—and let's remember that no actual terrorists have actually attacked sports venues in America outside of that time Bruce Dern tried it—to set off bombs outside stadiums instead, which would not be a happy outcome: "You're trying to get in the door, there's 20,000 people standing around outside. I could do a lot of damage there, just as easily as I could if I brought the thing inside. Maybe even more." (His students, Enders notes, are constantly wondering aloud why no one ever simply flies an airplane over a stadium and drops an explosive device out the window.)

Besides, if we really cared about safety, Enders says, we'd do things like ensure that bag checks actually check bags, beyond a quick look to ensure that no one is smuggling in unauthorized foodstuffs. "I just went to see Alabama-West Virginia in Atlanta," he notes. "My wife and I wanted to bring something in to drink. I said, 'Put it in the bottom of the purse, and we'll put the binoculars and the program on top, and that's the end of that.'"

Harvard security expert Bruce Schneier agrees, calling the new MLB directive "security theater"—probably unsurprisingly, since he's the one who first coined that term for measures that look good but do nothing to actually make people safer. (Schneier is also the guy who famously showed that anyone with a scanner and a copy of Photoshop can get past airport boarding-pass checkpoints.) "This is very much a C.Y.A. type of thing," he says. "'If something happens, we're going to be blamed.'"

This ends up not just being a waste of money—Schneier says MLB would be better off just giving the cash to local police departments to investigate crimes—but drastically skews our notions of what we have most to fear in our daily lives. Driving to the ballpark, he notes, is far more dangerous, "by an order of magnitude," than anything that's likely to happen once you get to the game. (Yes, even if A.J. Pierzynski is at bat.) "The police are eight or nine times more likely to kill you than a terrorist," says Schneier. "This kind of crap is what the terrorists winning looks like."

And that, ultimately, is the main problem with needlessly stepped-up security at our nation's ballparks, above and beyond all the future hours that fans will spend queueing up to have their pocket lint examined for hidden explosives. We're already becoming inured to metal detectors at all kinds of unlikely places—middle schools, for one—and this will only further enforce the message that the price of freedom from having your limbs blown off is eternal vigilance. It's a myth, though: a way of displacing our fears onto some scary Other clutching a bomb, when we're far more likely to be victimized by the person we're standing in line with.

Best not to think about that, though. When you're waiting in line to get into a ballgame next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, reassure yourself that if there's one thing we think we know about evildoers, it's that they're clever enough to terrify us, but stupid enough to fall right into our obvious traps. At least, that's how it always works in the movies.