Kansas City Remembers 9/11

Guns, guards and gates: Attacks shaped an industry

The Kansas City Star

When we entered this century, Validity Screening Solutions was a half-dozen people in Overland Park doing background checks for the few employers who felt compelled to bother with such things.

Now, a decade after men armed with little more than box cutters and religious certitude toppled skyscrapers, Validity Screening has ballooned to more than two dozen employees with a growing client base worried about the dangerously bad apples in a crowd.

“Employers started wondering, ‘If people could do this in a plane, then what could they do at my company,’?” said company president Darren Dupriest. “It accelerated the need for knowledge.”

And security spending.

By some calculations, government and businesses in the United States have added $1 trillion to their collective security bill over the 10 years since that awful morning. The private sector has added $10 billion a year to spending on security. Passenger delays at airports may cost the economy the same amount. And the federal government decided to move its Animal Disease Center inland from New York to what’s to be the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan.

Security cameras seem to have become ubiquitous. Entry to the most prosaic of jobs now involves a special card. Industry now ships a billion devices a year embedded with wireless security technology. America has doubled the number of its private security guards.

“It was as if 9/11 served as the hormone that pushed the security industry into adolescence,” said Mark Visbal, the research director for the Security Industry Association that represents businesses filling the country with closed-circuit cameras and electronically controlled access doors.

Businesses spent heavily on security in the first few years after the World Trade Centers fell, said Ray O’Hara, a vice president of security association ASIS International. Since then, the investments have leveled off, he said.

“Everybody reacted to what they didn’t have in place, but suddenly thought they needed,” O’Hara said. “They’ve got it now.”

With so much business generated by spending so much money, criticism has spread about whether government and industry need to fork over so many dollars or if they could do so more wisely.

“Bin Laden created an industry,” said Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and professor of homeland security at the University of Southern California. “It’s capitalism and entrepreneurism at its best tapping into a vast amount of resources.”

The question now, he said, is whether the country can afford to keep spending so much on guns, guards and gates. The federal spending that has driven the private security boon is already evaporating, he said, and it’s not clear the country was using those billions to make the country safer. For instance, he thinks we’ve spent too much on Jersey barriers and alarm systems and too little on understanding our adversaries.

When it comes to estimating the threat hurricanes or tornadoes or flooding represent to an area, said John Mueller of Ohio State University, the Department of Homeland Security is surpassed by none. But when it comes to calculating the risk a building or a company or a community faces from terrorism, he said, the agency doesn’t bother to guess.

So that’s how the federal government’s anti-terrorism database at one point included a third more potential targets in Indiana than in New York and double that of California. That National Asset Database also raised terrorism worries for a petting zoo, a flea market and the Mule Day parade in Columbia, Tenn.

All of that blows the actual threat of terrorism well out of proportion to reality, said Mueller, the co-author of “Terror, Security and Money.”

Factoring in both the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 20, 1995, an American faces a one in 3.5 million chance per year of dying in an act of terrorism. You’re more than three times more likely to drown in the bathtub.

“Unless your budget is infinite, and it’s not, you have to move away from this idea that half the population is going to act as bodyguards for the other half,” Mueller said.

While criminologist and terrorism specialist Jennifer Carson said the country needs to shift more attention to terrorism threats from within — as opposed to an obsession about al-Qaida attacks — she said we’ve become smarter. By some accounts, the intelligence has foiled perhaps 25 terrorist plots in the last decade.

At the same time, she said, stepped-up security tends to steer terrorism to other targets that aren’t as hardened against attack.

“Terrorists are innovators and they’ll find a way to attack,” Carson said. “But when you put up defenses, you at least deflect the target to somebody else.”

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