May the force not always be with us

Are the new security measures at Saroyan Theatre the new normal? I hope not

The Bee’s Rory Appleton has an interesting piece about something new for audience members at the Saroyan Theatre: bag checks and metal detectors. The practice is part of a larger trend of increased security at the Save Mart Center, Selland Arena and other local venues.

Appleton writes:

A series of unrelated events both in Fresno and abroad have led many of the local venues to tighten up their bag policies. Some also have added metal detectors to their entrance routines. Both are a byproduct of 2017 life, but both have led to long entrance lines for everything from rock concerts and symphony performances to San Joaquin Valley Town Hall events.

My first encounter with the Saroyan’s new security policy was the long line to get into the Fresno Philharmonic’s opening pops concert of the season on Saturday night. When I arrived at about 7:20 p.m., 10 minutes before the concert was to begin, the line to get into the south entrance stretched almost to the parking garage.

Luckily, thanks to the theme of the concert, there were “Star Wars” characters in costume wandering up and down the line entertaining folks. There’s nothing like a dour-expression-flashing imperial stormtrooper to keep your mind off the fact that our country’s own security-industrial-complex infrastructure keeps growing in new and disturbing ways. Now, it seems, a metal detector is necessary to gather in a public space to listen to the music of John Williams. (The bag check requirement was waived this time around, The Bee tells us, but it will be in place for the orchestra’s first Masterworks concert on Oct. 15.)

It turns out there wasn’t enough time for the whole crowd to go through the metal detector, or else the concert would have started impossibly late. When I arrived at the door, I was told to walk right in. This would seem to defeat the idea of increased security, unless you’re assuming that terrorists are early birds.

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Standing guard: Three Fresno Philharmonic concergoers interact with local cosplay characters Saturday at the Saroyan Theatre. Photo / The Munro Review

Still, despite the hiccups, the Saroyan security procedure is in the developmental phases. I’m sure the process will become smoother. (First order of business, I’m assuming, is more metal detectors and personnel to speed up the lines.) But that smoothness — the point where it’s all just one more hassle we go through in daily life, a few more minutes wasted in the name of pro forma reassurance — is what I get nervous about.

I understand the impulse for ever-more security. The Ariana Grande concert tragedy in England certainly has folks on edge. So does the stream of stories about other attacks overseas.

I also know what it’s like to be in a city that feels under siege. I lived in New York in 2002-03, and I experienced my fair share of bag checks and metal detectors at everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to the Metropolitan Museum.

But that was New York. This is Fresno. How much do we want to cede our daily lives to exaggerated vigilance?

To me, the most troubling thing is this: The individual rights we give up in the name of security will be very hard, if not impossible, to ever claw back. Example: We’ve slowly become accustomed to the rigorous security drama we go through when we board our airplanes. (And in some cases, as with the prohibition on bottled water, that rigor is aimed at infinitesimal risks.) We’ve become resigned to the irritation, inconvenience and humiliation.

There’s always someone who says: “Well, if there’s a chance something bad could happen, we need to be vigilant.” You might think that’s a reasonable argument. But it’s problematic. There’s always something more we could do to reduce risk. How far are we willing to go in the name of security? Road blocks at random intersections? (We already do that in the pursuit of elevated blood alcohol levels.) Metal detectors at the grocery store? Will we tolerate random frisks and spot checks at ArtHop or Fig Gig or farmers’ markets?

It’s fun to see people dress up as futuristic fighters bristling with space-age weapons. Yet as I watched the agents of the evil Empire strut up and down the line at the Fresno Philharmonic event, I thought about real soldiers with real guns guarding and screening us, and it didn’t seem so festive. What if this becomes normal in terms of the way we experience public space? Will it come to that?

I don’t have any easy answers. But I do know that I’m annoyed. And concerned. And resigned to arriving 15 minutes earlier.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

4 thoughts on “May the force not always be with us”

  1. So sad to hear that we have evolved to this standard, in Fresno, of all places! Given the ticket prices for concerts and the audience the shows attract, you wonder what the management of these venues can possibly be thinking – putting us through such a ridiculous, humiliating and time-wasting ritual when the percentage of deaths caused by “terrorism” in the US is so minuscule compared to other dangers such as driving a car!

    1. Jeri said it better than I could.

      We simply cannot let the (vast) minority rule our lives.

      Unfortunately, it stems from the top down. Political leaders feel compelled to speak to issues as black and white (even my beloved Obama increased NSA surveillance powers).

      It’s not fear that drives us. It’s complacency, as you said, Donald.

      And, like you, I have no idea what to do about it but write sterile thoughts on social media.

  2. As a venue operator (Arte Américas) this is a huge issue also, as I hate for our people to be waiting. If bag checks happen quickly and in a non-threatening manner, it’s still the best approach. Venue operators need to consider a worst-case scenario without being crippled by fear at the same time. We also want guests to feel safe at our shows with their families.

    Imagine if someone DID get in with a weapon — the blog posts and social media comments asking why there are no bag checks or how it could be that “someone would cause a tragedy at a symphony concert in Lil Ol Fresno”

    It’s annoying and eats away minutes, yes. But consider the alternative. No city is exempt from the possibility of senseless acts of violence, as much as we like to think that we’re too small or friendly for it to happen to ‘us’. Don’t jump on the anti-bagcheck bandwagon without putting yourself in the shoes off the Phil. I wish the world were different but it’s not. Venues have the safety of hundreds/thousands of people in their hands, which is different than when you’re just buying a ticket for yourself.

    I’m sure they’ll be better staffed next time, and that it’ll all go more smoothly in the future.

  3. Frank’s points have merit but they are just one side of the argument. It comes down to a value judgment and on this one, I think Donald has the better argument. We can always have better security but where do we draw the line and are we willing to pay (all of) the cost(s)? And the cost is not just waiting and being annoyed it is also a more abstract sense of offense; of chipping away at freedom; of being treated with suspicion when there is no basis for it as to you, of intrusion into my person and property. The bag “check” is a search and although being a private organization the 4th amendment doesn’t apply, the underlying principle resonates just the same and so I think the standard should be the same – i.e., there should have to be an articulable, particularized suspicion as to the given individual before a search of any kind is permissible. Moreover, as a practical matter, checking bags and having a metal detector at a symphony concert has less than an infinitesimal chance of preventing some tragedy, so under a cost benefit analysis it just cannot be justified in that context. Stricter regulation of firearms will have much more impact. These checks essentially just create a false sense of security and are mostly (unnecessary) cya for the venue operator – sorry Frank, you’re a cool dude, but on this issue I very much disagree

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