The New York Yankees became the latest Major League Baseball team to introduce metal detectors to its stadium, part of a broader security push that will ultimately defeat its stated purpose.
After testing the new screening method in a handful of ballparks last year, the league said it will require all stadiums to have metal detectors by 2015. Several teams have already started rolling out the new equipment.
Safety has understandably been on everyone's mind since the Boston Marathon bombing last year, which renewed anxiety about security across the sports world. The Red Sox standardized the use of hand-held metal detectors, and police lined the route of the New York City Marathon accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs. The National Football League banned tailgating at the Super Bowl. Baseball worked with the Department of Homeland Security on its metal-detector mandate, and basketball and hockey officials are looking into similar procedures.
The issue is all too familiar for Yankees fans. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the team placed restrictions on everything from backpacks to bottles -- even umbrellas. Fans took it in stride because it made us feel safer at a time when merely leaving the house seemed like an act of courage. Baseball became a huge part of our collective return to normalcy, but it also helped us acclimate to the new reality of living in a security state. It was better than living in fear.
In the years that followed, security eased a bit at Yankee Stadium. You could bring in food and drinks and no longer had to show your phone at the gate to prove that it couldn't be used to trigger an explosion, or something.
Then the bombs went off in Boston and we were reminded of how we felt more than a decade ago. Like the Yankees and Mets back then, some Red Sox players acknowledged their fear of a ballpark attack. I can relate, as someone who spent as much time at Yankee Stadium when I was high school as I did staring out my classroom window at Ground Zero across the street. And I understand the need to keep public venues safe.
But here's the problem. Metal detectors don't make us feel safer -- because they don't actually make us any safer. A 2011 study that looked into 15 years of metal-detector use in schools found insufficient evidence to support the claim that they reduce violence. In fact, the researchers found that "the presence of metal detectors may detrimentally impact student perceptions of safety."
Last February, metal detectors at an Atlanta middle school failed to stop the shooting of a 14-year-old, casting more doubt on their effectiveness. In 2012, the New York Times talked to students at a Brooklyn high school for troubled youth that had never had a problem with gun violence. "Honestly, these detectors add to my stress and isolation," one student said.
We should be skeptical of ballpark metal detectors, too. And not just because of their dubious effectiveness or because Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a founding partner of the security company assisting the league with its new policy. We should be wary of any practice that unnecessarily adds to our collective fear.
Security experts warn that we shouldn't grow complacent simply because terrorist attacks happen so rarely. But we have to weigh the need for vigilance against the risks of living in a culture of fear, a culture that breeds its own kind of complacency. Fear is how we justify the ever-increasing assault on our privacy. Fear is how we tell ourselves it's OK that some members of our society live in a police state. Fear is how we get Ferguson.
The Boston Marathon is still fresh in everyone's mind, and for good reason. But history has shown that we're capable of letting go of our fears. By 2008, New Yorkers were most afraid not of terrorism, but of not being able to maintain their quality of life. When I walk through the metal detectors at Yankee Stadium this weekend, I hope the scariest thing on my mind will be the state of my team's offense.
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