International Customs Is Security Theater

June 16, 2017 by Logan Albright

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I just returned from a week’s vacation in London, and the city was magical. However, international travel was not. My journey began with an inauspicious two-hour wait to clear British customs.

For those who have never traveled outside the country, let me paint a picture of this little ritual for you. After spending the better part of a day uncomfortably crammed on an airplane full of sweaty strangers, with only the inedible abomination that is airplane food to stave off starvation, you are greeted at your destination by a long line of foreigners waiting to be permitted entry into the country.

This seems sensible enough, right? It’s a dangerous world, and it would be irresponsible for governments not to adhere to basic security measures to keep their own citizens safe. So I once thought, but now having experienced it a few times, I’ve come to realize the absurdity of this ultimately pointless ritual.

It’s a Charade

There are a number of things you have to do to clear customs. First, present a passport. No problem. I already had to show my passport half a dozen times to even get on the plane that carried me here. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could make it this far without a valid passport, or what the disgruntled employees of passport control are hoping to discover in their rushed and frankly casual scan of my already-verified documents.

The second thing you have to do to clear customs is answer some extremely basic questions. “What is the purpose of your visit?” As long as you don’t say “terrorism”, this one is easy. “What’s in your bag?” They apparently take your word on this one, because there appears to be no further effort to verify whether you are telling the truth. “Have you been around any farm animals?” Well who’s going to say yes to that?

Having successfully navigated this charade, I was eventually admitted into the United Kingdom, where I looked forward to enjoying a safe and enjoyable stay, with the knowledge that Britain’s finest had done their best to protect me.

Several hours later, a terrorist attack killed seven and wounded forty-eight people only a few miles from my hotel.

I don’t mean to pick on the Brits; every other country is just as bad, especially the United States, whose customs agents seem to go out of their way to make the process as inefficient as possible. But the whole process just struck me as a laughably feeble way to combat terrorism. Are any terrorists actually dumb enough to get captured by this system?

It’s impossible to escape the impression that the whole thing is just theater, millions of travelers being inconvenienced for the illusion of safety. And this inconvenience is not costless.

Among my fellow passengers were several older people, unable to walk quickly and confused by the bureaucracy. As customs agents rudely shuffled them through the line, shouting orders and even laying hands on them to usher them along at one point, I could only imagine the embarrassment and indignity of their situation. There could hardly be a better way to disincentivize tourism for retirees, typically the demographic most able to afford international travel. It’s certainly hard to see why someone would subject themselves to this kind of treatment unless they had to.

Doing… Something

There is, of course, no way to calculate the lost revenue from those deterred from travel by the cumbersome customs system, but the effect must be significant. Countries shoot themselves in the foot by discouraging visitors from their shores, and throttling the influx of cash that comes from these visits.

I don’t know what the answer to international terrorism is. I don’t pretend to. The London attack was carried out with a van and some knives. You can’t stop people from having trucks, nor can you stop them from having knives. At least two of the attackers were British residents.

Unless we can change hearts and minds, it seems we are doomed to suffer this sort of violence, at least for now. Such fatalism is not popular, nor does it play politically, so it’s understandable that governments want to be seen as taking proactive measures to keep their citizens safe. But it seems pretty clear that the current impediments to travel are not doing the job, and serve little purpose but to project the image of “doing something.”

This article originally appeared on The Foundation for Economic Education.

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