Security Theater

On Friday afternoon in Shanghai, I noticed an encounter that was striking to me mostly because of how blasé both parties involved were. At the entrance to metro stations in most of China’s major cities, there are x-ray machines where passengers are required to place their bags before passing through the gates and onto a train. The machines usually have a pair of attendants, one to monitor the x-ray display and the other to make sure people don’t walk past without putting their bag through.

While I was leaving one such subway entrance, a Chinese guy with a shoulder bag walked quickly in while looking down at his cellphone. As he approached the machine, he didn’t give any sign of slowing down or intending to put his bag through. The guard said “security check!”; he just kept staring at his phone. She repeated: “security!” and he did nothing. She then began saying “security, security, security” over and over again in a clear but relatively monotone voice – not shouting, but half-heartedly chanting. She raised her arm out parallel to her body to stop the man from entering. He soldiered on silently, and when he got to her outstretched arm simply pressed against it and passed through like any subway turnstile.

He looked at his phone the entire time, not making eye contact with her or really giving any indication that he cared about the process. And as soon as he passed by, the guard stopped her chant and never looked back.

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