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Posted at 9:35 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Bag checks a 'necessary evil'?

By Robert Thomson

[See transcript of chat about Metro's bag inspections.]

Responding to no specific threat against the transit system, the transit system today began to randomly threaten its riders with police searches.

In my Sunday column, I said that Metro launched this program of rider intimidation without discussing it with the riders, who I think even Metro would concede are involved in the operation of the transit system. I'd like to share one of the responses I got from readers and discuss it with you.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
So you think that Madrid or London could not happen here? Or that the Metro Riders' Advisory Council knows how to prevent it?

If, God forbid something happens, we'll all be yelling "Why didn't they ..."

Like it or not, this is the world we live in, and spot checks are a necessary evil.
Vita Hollander, The District

I think many people will feel this way and submit to the searches. Others will grumble but submit because they have to get to work, despite Metro's silly defense that anyone can refuse to be examined and instead walk to work.

To be a necessary evil, a thing must be both necessary and evil. I'll concede the latter. The government is stopping, examining and questioning people who have no more sinister intent than to pay a large fare to stand in an overcrowded space. (Such behavior may be nuts, but so far it's not criminal.)

Our revulsion with unreasonable searches is as old as this nation. After Americans got rid of a king who thought searching people was his divine right, they wrote into the U.S. Constitution a requirement that the government must have a really good reason to search a person and be looking for a specific thing. The government's agents had to convince a court that they met those requirements.

Many of our rights come with some qualifications. In our case, a key test is whether a search is reasonable. I'm not a lawyer, just a traveler. Based on what I've seen during 22 years of riding Metro, I have no reason to believe that the police inspection program -- conducted randomly by a handful of officers at a couple of the stations -- would stop a terrorist.

Nobody -- not even Metro -- thinks a determined terrorist is going to submit to a bag inspection. No Metro official has told us that the bag inspections are "necessary" to catch terrorists.

What they are designed to do is create a climate of fear surrounding use of our transit system. It's possible that by creating a hubbub at a station, a terrorist might be deterred from proceeding into it. It's also possible the terrorist might walk over to a nearby station or get on a bus.

While I'm also not a security expert, I think I can state this without concern for contradiction: There are a lot more riders than there are terrorists. The climate of fear that Metro intends to create may possibly deter a terrorist, which would be a most excellent thing for all of us.

What's certain is that this government-sponsored climate of fear will intimidate riders. It may be more effective in doing so than the robberies on the trains, the fights in the stations and the thefts in the parking areas, none of which Metro has felt it "necessary" to prevent by supplying a sufficient number of transit officers to protect us.

By Robert Thomson  | December 21, 2010; 9:35 AM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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Next: ACLU: 'Deep concern' on Metro checks


There is NO reason it will deter a terrorist, who will simply have an alternate plan in place to account for the possibility of bag checks at their chosen station. Assuming their plan required entering a station to begin with. This accomplishes less than nothing.

Posted by: DragonofAnger | December 21, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

A couple of thoughts:

-I think many people probably feel safer when they see that these inspections are happening. Not everyone reacts with fear and loathing of the procedure.

-How could we determine the effectiveness at deterring terrorists of bag checks of random people? If they are deterred, we would not know it. Given this difficulty, we can just as easily assume that they are effective as we can assume that they are not effective. But I agree that just doing these inspections at some and not all stations would probably be less effective.

-Would people feel differently if there were bag inspections of random people at ALL Metro stations? I would think that would be a more effective deterrent.

Posted by: informedtraveller | December 21, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Security theater, informedtraveller. If Bush was president, you'd be wetting yourself over this.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 21, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

These bag checks as Metro is implementing them do not add to the system's security at all. They don't even add to the illusion of security. The only way bag checks could do any good is if every passenger has to pass through the checkpoint. Setting up a table and pulling random passengers over for a bag check simply telegraphs to anyone approaching that entrance with the intent of conducting mayhem that they should hang back until the bag checker is occupied with another passenger, at which point they can just walk right in with the rest of the crowd. Or if it appears they're not going to be able to get through the bag check at that station, then all they need to do is go to some other station or another entrance to that same station where bag checks aren't being conducted.

I wonder how the Secret Service would feel about just conducting random bag checks instead of having a full security gate that every attendee has to go through the next time the President makes a scheduled appearance at some public event, such as throwing out the first pitch at a Nationals game?

Posted by: FeelWood | December 21, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

How about all of the "this will never work" crowd provide some better ideas about how to keep us safe. Oh, let me guess, stop every minority male who looks "Middle Eastern" and search his bag, all the while, John Walker Lindh (white Taliban fighter) walks right past security and blows up a train. You will never know how many people were deterred from trying to commit an act because, guess what, they were deterred from even trying!

Posted by: nsu1203 | December 21, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

"How about all of the "this will never work" crowd provide some better ideas about how to keep us safe."

Doing nothing at all is a better idea than doing dumb stuff that annoys passengers and does not add to either the system's security or the illusion of system security, wouldn't you say? Once that's established, then it makes sense to start trying to find some smart things to do instead of doing nothing.

Posted by: FeelWood | December 21, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I agree. Better to forget the searches. Metro should concentrate on fixing its many problems. Search only those that they have reasonable cause to believe they are Terrorists. IOW, the 4th.

Posted by: dkf747 | December 21, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I would rather nothing be done than pointless theater that accomplishes less than nothing.

UnsuckDCMetro quoted Bruce Schneier, a security expert, and I will take the liberty of quoting here:

Final note: I often get comments along the lines of "Stop criticizing stuff; tell us what we should do." My answer is always the same. Counterterrorism is most effective when it doesn't make arbitrary assumptions about the terrorists' plans. Stop searching bags on the subways, and spend the money on 1) intelligence and investigation -- stopping the terrorists regardless of what their plans are, and 2) emergency response -- lessening the impact of a terrorist attack, regardless of what the plans are. Countermeasures that defend against particular targets, or assume particular tactics, or cause the terrorists to make insignificant modifications in their plans, or that surveil the entire population looking for the few terrorists, are largely not worth it.

Posted by: DragonofAnger | December 21, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

"How about all of the "this will never work" crowd provide some better ideas about how to keep us safe."

How about you increase the number of transit officers patrolling the system, each with a bomb sniffing dog. If the dog alerts to something, THEN there is probable cause for a search. The increased police presence is also a deterrent as most people won't try to do anything with officers present. These officers can also help to prevent theft, assault, and harassment (usually by the gangs of teenagers) within the system, so not only will they combat terrorism, but hopefully reduce general crime within the metro system too.

I have to agree with the poster who stated he/she grew up here in DC. I did too and have always felt there is just a more inherent danger for terrorism with our proximity to the Nation’s Capital. I still feel there is a greater chance of me being injured on the Metro due to Metro’s own fault, not from an act of terrorism. Or getting hit by a car on the street with all the lunatic drivers in this town. Living here is my choice, but my choice to submit to a search of my property is still protected by the U.S. Constitution. Aren’t we all granted the right to a speedy and efficient commute (ha!). One can only dream, but don’t add to the inefficiencies of the Metro system for minimal (really imagined) protection.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | December 21, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

When can we expect airport-style full body scans and pat-downs? All for our own "protection," of course.

Posted by: JanisWC | December 21, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

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