Invasive security procedures at airports have incensed citizens of every political party, and have ignited a firestorm of controversy. Many analysts have argued that these procedures don’t actually make American citizens safer, and instead simply create an additional threat for Americans to consider as they make travel decisions. However, despite the ineffectiveness of the security measures, travelers often report feeling more safe as a result. The term security theater refers to “security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security” (Wikipedia).
Interestingly, although the term security theater has been popularized by our aggravating experiences at the airport, security theater is actually a integral part of our daily lives. Many commercial establishments will place fake security cameras in their stores so that criminals will believe that their actions are being monitored (when they really aren’t). Many homeowners place signs warning potential intruders that the property is protected by an advanced security system (when it really isn’t). These fake security measures deter criminals and help customers feel safer. However, the security measures are really a pretense, and don’t actually prevent crime, except through a psychological sleight of hand.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on things I do to help myself feel like a more righteous person without actually making myself better. To my surprise, this has happened a lot more often than I expected. Often, it takes the form of a rule or guideline that I’ve set for myself. Let me share a couple of examples.
I’ve always had a strict no homework on Sunday policy. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever done homework on Sunday. In addition, I’ve also had a no shopping on Sunday policy. I’ve kept this rule with only a few exceptions. Following these rules has allowed me to pat myself on the back for keeping the Sabbath day holy. However, upon reflection, I now wonder if I’ve ever kept the Sabbath day holy. Sure, I never do homework and I never go shopping, but I habitually spend the Sabbath socializing with friends from my singles ward, watching TV, and in other ways distracting myself in ways that I normally don’t have time to during the week. Rarely do I ever take time to make the Sabbath a genuinely holy day. Rarely do I deliberately set the Sabbath apart as a day to renew my relationship with Christ.
Why have I never come to this realization before? I think it is at least partly because the two major guidelines I set for myself (no homework and no commerce) became a form of spiritual security theater. Through a psychological sleight of hand, I was able trick myself into believing that I was keeping the Sabbath day holy. I could tell myself, “As long as I follow these rules, I’m doing just fine.” What I did within the boundaries of those rules became unimportant. In fact, I would sometimes be critical of those who would do homework on the Sabbath, and congratulate myself for being better at keeping the Sabbath than they did. It didn’t matter that they spent 3 hours in personal meditation and scripture study as well, or spent the day in private worship of the Savior. The rules I set for myself allowed me to fool myself into thinking that I was both safely following the commandment and superior to those with different personal guidelines.
Here’s another example. We’ve been counseled time and again to avoid spiritually destructive, sensual, or excessively violent entertainment. For this reason, I’ve always strictly avoided R-rated movies. As long as I kept this rule, I could pat myself on the back for evading garbage entertainment and keeping myself unspotted from the follies of Hollywood. Upon reflection, it’s utterly ridiculous how wrong I was. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent indulging in media that is far more spiritually destructive than a number of R-rated films. Once again, through a psychological sleight of hand, I was able to fool myself into believing I was spiritually safe, so long as I kept the rule. This is security theater at its worst. The rule became a way of easing my conscience while at the same time playing with fire. As long as it wasn’t rated R, I was fine, right? In addition, it became another excuse for me to feel superior to those with different personal guidelines.
The examples keep multiplying. I’ll throw out a couple more. How often have I read a couple of pages in the Book of Mormon in 2 minutes, with little pondering or reflection, in order to feel as though I was engaging in daily scripture study? How often have I skipped breakfast and delayed lunch for an hour or two in order to feel like I am keeping the law of the fast? How often have I avoided pornography, but committed adultery in my heart? Useless security measures at the airport are problematic not just because they help us feel safer without actually making us safer. They are problematic because when we feel safe, we can potentially ignore many real and dangerous threats. In the same way, our token efforts to keep the commandments can help us ease our conscience, fool ourselves into thinking we’re spiritually safe, and can therefore lead us to ignore real and dangerous threats to our spiritual welfare. I wonder if this is the reason why the hundreds upon hundreds of superfluous rules that the ancient Jews created for themselves were spiritually destructive.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I believe that personal guidelines and rules are crucially important. I’d rather fast a little than not at all. I’d rather read the Book of Mormon hastily and sloppily than not at all. I’d rather avoid homework and commerce on the Sabbath than ignore the Sabbath altogether. I’d rather avoid R-rated films than indulge in them. We need to set personal boundaries and strictly adhere to them. However, it is also important to ensure that our personal rules, boundaries, and guidelines don’t lead us into a false sense of security. It is important that we make sure that these rules are more than just fake cameras and pretend security signs. It is crucial that we don’t congratulate ourselves for our strict obedience, while at the same disengaging from our relationship with the Savior (either by playing with fire within the boundaries of the rules, or by using our rules as a tool to judge others).
The Savior once warned against those whom he called “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead [men's] bones, and of all uncleanness.” During my recent reflections, I’ve been nearly terrified to discover how often this has referred to me. I’m been almost terrified to discover how my personal standards have led me into a “carnal sense of security,” and therefore into spiritual danger. However, the experience has only been “nearly” and “almost” terrifying, because it has been coupled with faith that with the Savior’s help, I can change. I’m going to commit to making my efforts to keep the commandments more than just a token or a pretense.
In what other ways do we engage in spiritual security theater without realizing it?