Keep calm and hit the pitch.

Photographer: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Paris Shows Stadium Security Is a Necessary Hassle

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

As horrifying as the terrorist attacks in Paris were, they could have been much worse were it not for the alertness of security guards and officials at Stade de France.

According to the Wall Street Journal's Joshua Robinson and Inti Landauro, an attacker wearing a suicide vest was stopped from entering the stadium after being frisked at a security check during the Germany-France friendly Friday night. With 80,000 people inside, including French president Francois Hollande, the police believe "the attacker aimed to detonate his vest inside the stadium in order to provoke a deadly stampede."

Instead, he set off his vest outside the stadium, killing one other person. That blast can be heard in a widely circulated Vine of the match's television broadcast.

It was then that Hollande was moved to a secure skybox and made a key decision: to let the match continue and keep the crowd in the stands. A second attacker wearing explosives was waiting outside another gate; he detonated 10 minutes after the first explosion, killing just himself. In addition to the dozens of deaths that may have resulted from a stampede and mass panic, a flood of fans would have been exposed to that blast.

News of the foiled attack have led some to rethink their stance on stadium security measures, which tend to draw the ire of impatient fans who see them as little more than an ineffectual nuisance. I've written previously on the futility of metal detectors at stadium entrances, but my immediate reaction to the WSJ report was to reconsider my position. Just as after Sept. 11 and the Boston Marathon bombings, it's understandable to react to the Paris attacks with a renewed embrace of beefed-up security at sporting events. The NFL released a statement Saturday promising additional law enforcement personnel both inside and outside of its stadiums in addition to the usual metal detectors and perimeter screenings. Fans attending Sunday's games also noticed armed troopers, bomb-sniffing dogs and police helicopters. 

But even in the wake of tragic attacks, and with the news that stadium security worked in Paris, it's important that we distinguish between effective security measures and "security theater" -- a term coined by security expert Bruce Schneier to denote measures that make people feel safe without actually making them any safer. TSA airport checks are perhaps the most well-known example of security theater. Those full-body scanners have been proven to be ineffective and easily fooled. Schneier adds metal detectors and National Guard troops to the list of security theater measures.

In 2009, Schneier explained the mentality that drives security theater:

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense. ...

Any terrorist attack is a series of events: something like planning, recruiting, funding, practicing, executing, aftermath. Our most effective defenses are at the beginning and end of that process -- intelligence, investigation, and emergency response -- and least effective when they require us to guess the plot correctly.

As Schneier notes, "the security measures that work are largely invisible": gathering intelligence, hiring cultural experts, keeping foiled terror plots out of the headlines. The most effective measures are not reflexive -- instead of looking back at the previous attack, they look to prevent the next one. The temptation to implement reactionary measures after a major attack is quite predictable, but its danger extends far beyond mere ineffectiveness. Schneier points to "the psychological damage that terrorism causes" and the need to overcome such fear: "A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country's way of life; it's only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage." 

That said, the balance between maintaining our way of life and keeping us safe remains a moving target. It's true that some individual measures might only serve to make us feel safer; for example, a 2006 Delphi study published by the U.S. Sports Academy found preventing items such as coolers and backpacks into stadiums to be effective; bomb-sniffing dogs, not so much.

But some security experts don't think you can evaluate the whole apparatus by the sum of its parts. Juliette Kayyem, a security consultant and former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, noted that while "metal detectors are less successful for very nefarious things," it's the compound effect of the more public aspects of security -- things like detectors, pat-downs and bag checks -- that proves useful.

"The reason we do that is for the deterrent effect," Kayyem said. "Knowing you're having to go through three layers of security has a deterrent effect. That is part of security -- you put up enough layers so that [stadiums] are less vulnerable than they would be if they were totally open."

Kayyem stressed the need for the public to come to terms with the fact that these measures will never be 100 percent effective. "There's no perfect security," she said. "We have to get that out of our vocabulary. Security is minimizing risk and fortifying or protecting facilities and those who come there." 

The bottom line, she said, is that the slight disruption of security checks before entering stadiums is a small price to pay for living in a free and relatively safe society, not a display of fear or weakness. "I don't think anyone has a monopoly on what it is to be American, whether the security apparatus fundamentally lets the terrorists win," she said. "The number of events going on each weekend, the number of people getting on and off a plane -- these are de minimis burdens that the public should be willing to take." 

Security professionals also need to constantly adapt their strategies to accommodate new tactics and technology, not to mention new realities. That's where Kayyem sees major room for improvement. "We're very good at ratcheting up," she said. "We have to be equally good at ratcheting down. We have to be always reassessing based on the threat and the risk out there. It's never done."

So what can we learn from Paris? For one, Kayyem hopes the public warms up to the idea of stadium security after an instance of it working. And we know it's the things we don't see -- things like surveillance cameras and undercover cops -- that prove especially effective in preventing attacks. 

But perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from French officials is in crowd control. Much of stadium security starts in the design of the stadium itself; most major venues have been built by architects well-versed in the science of crowd control, allowing for quick and safe evacuations. But it's the cool-headedness of the officials at Stade de France that Kayyem credits with preventing even more bloodshed. In addition to having the teams play on, authorities sealed the exits and chose not to inform the fans or players of what was happening in Paris. "They didn't panic," Kayyem continued, "and that you only get from training." 

Such a lesson is especially worthwhile given that terrorism is just one of the many risks security professionals keep in mind when devising countermeasures. It's assumed that the Paris attackers' goal was to start a stampede, which can be sparked by any number of events, from a bomb going off to an earthquake or flood. In several recent tragedies, minor incidents combined with breakdowns in crowd control resulted in dozens being trampled to death -- none of which involved terrorism.

Last May, at least 15 people were killed in a stampede at Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa, Congo, which began when fans threw bottles on the field. A year ago this month, at least 11 people died trying to exit a massive church service in Mbizo Stadium in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, as police had blocked all exits but one as the service ended. At least 25 died in a stampede at Cairo's 30 June Stadium last February after thousands of ticketless fans tried to force their way in. In all three incidents, the stampede was set off by police firing tear gas into the crowd.

When fans complain about stadium security, they're exhibiting two distinct brands of myopia: one that sacrifices safety for convenience, and one that ignores the various disasters other than terrorism these measures are designed to counter. "People in emergency management don't like talking solely about terrorism -- you want a response system that can deal with any potential threat," Kayyem said. It's important for fans to adapt their expectations for gate checks and pat-downs, just as it's important for officials to adjust their level of security, according to the current existence or absence of a threat at hand.

The Paris attacks are having a ripple effect. France has banned fans from following their teams to away soccer matches this weekend. On Tuesday, less than two hours before the start of a friendly between Germany and the Netherlands, HDI Arena in Hanover, Germany, was evacuated after authorities reportedly received a bomb threat, though no explosives were found. 

Instagram user dionfarnes posted a photo of the crowd outside the stadium as the announcement that the match was canceled came down, with this message: "Disappointment but a very understanding crowd." Let's hope that after the tragedy in Paris, fans and security officials everywhere show that much common sense.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net