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Did “security theater” actually save a Jakarta mall from attack?

An Indonesian security guard watches over a shopping mall in Jakarta.
Reuters/Crack Palinggi
Not just superifical?
By Joon Ian Wong
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“Security theater” may have actually reduced the deadliness of today’s (Jan. 14) attacks in Jakarta, which killed two people, not including the suicide bombers themselves.

One of the attacks was an explosion at a police checkpoint outside the Sarinah shopping center. The attackers were apparently targeting the mall, according to a security expert in The Guardian, but were stopped by security guards and taken to the checkpoint, where they set off their bombs.

That suggests a potentially much deadlier attack was foiled not by special intelligence or security measures, but by the routine checks that are in place at many major public buildings around the world.

Jakarta put these measures in place after attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels in 2009. The checks have been dubbed “security theater” by locals, a source of complaints from inconvenienced mall visitors. But if the Sarinah guards did indeed turn away the attackers thanks to these routine checks, this supposed theater has genuine benefits.

Shopping malls and offices are often outfitted with an array of scanning devices, ranging from airport-style X-ray machines to metal-detector gantries. Guards at some hotels and luxury malls also sweep cars with metal detectors. These checks are common in some other Asian cities, like Bangkok and Mumbai.

There has been reluctance to erect these sorts of security checks at malls in the US, for example, because of the impression that it would be too great an imposition on everyday life. “In the United States, there is no appetite for making malls closed environments, where there’s one entry point with a metal detector and X-ray,” according to one security expert.

The Sarinah mall doesn’t even have the benefit of the elaborate scanning equipment that Jakarta’s plusher hotels and shopping centers employ. It’s the country’s oldest department store, built in the 1960s, and was famous for being the first building in the country with escalators. Its security measures, too, are relatively basic. Its guards sweep customers entering the building with hand-held metal detectors.

There’s some scientific research to suggest that just creating the impression of heightened security can cause potential assailants to give themselves away. Studies with sniffer dogs patrolling for drugs and lie-detector machines, for example, suggest that people with something to hide give observers involuntary cues to their true intentions.

Security guards at the Garden City mall in Nairobi, for example, found a homemade explosive device on a man who they thought was acting suspiciously at the mall’s regular security checkpoint. The device was ultimately detonated by a bomb squad. That mall boasts security checks at all entries and exits.

In the case of the foiled Sarinah mall attack, perhaps the bombers were spooked by the guards and also gave themselves away. If so, the costs of that particular “theater” production seem to justify the benefits.

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