Wednesday, July 27, 2005
'Security Theater' : Fearful Minds in Fearful Times 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
This news development slipped by my nose, until I read about it on EclecticEveryday - after all, I don't live in New York any more. Riders on the New York City subway system are now subject to random police searches of their bags or parcels prior to entering the turnstiles, a measure adopted after the London subway bombing incidents. Cindy quotes from an article on Manhattan User's Guide by Charlie Suisman, "Fearful Times":
"On Monday, in response to the newly instituted random subway searches, MUG questioned the efficacy of these searches as they are currently set up. It seemed to me that this deployment of resources is largely cosmetic (and terrorism experts I have heard interviewed have said essentially the same thing), designed to make riders feel better. That’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but the benefit of making people feel better now is outweighed, perhaps, by the unease it will have created when, despite this, a bomb goes off...

The [MUG] mail from Monday ran 79 against the searches and four in favor of them. Even if it had been the other way around, I see no harm in asking the question. One reader wrote, "You might have heard in the real press (see www.1010wins.com for polls) that the average New York subway rider sees the searches as positive (which should also make you uneasy about broadcasting your anti-search views to your NYC readership)."

That made me uneasy all right, but not for the reason the author of the email supposed. I was uneasy that the author would think that simply because, even if true, New Yorkers favor the searches, that that is a reason not to point out what seem to me flaws in the logic of those searches...I found this in my email, from [reader] D. Stein: "How dare you question the subway searches???!?!?! You sound completely ignorant and foolish."

I know I blanched, because I felt the blood instantly drain from my face. It's not the second sentence – I'm ignorant and foolish on a daily basis. It was that a fellow New Yorker was so fearful that he was willing to fall into lock-step with authority and was shocked that someone else would not. Isn't asking questions, as Primo Levi learned, one of the fundamental elements of freedom?"
– Charlie Suisman
Chicago's subway riders, thankfully, only have bomb-sniffing dogs and regularly stationed police and private security officers to face - not random searches. However, a single terror-type incident in any American city could up the ante to New York Style stop-and-search surveillance in many urban areas, like Chicago.

As a forethought, I recommend reading FlexYourRights.org's Citizen's Guide to Refusing Subway Searches, a safe and sane list of tips on how to prevent a random subway check from potentially escalating into violence, while preserving your rights against unreasonable searches:
In response to the recent London terror attacks, New York police officers are now conducting random searches of bags and packages brought into the subway.

While Flex Your Rights takes no position on the usefulness of these searches for preventing future attacks, we have serious concerns that this unprecedented territorial expansion of police search powers is doing grave damage to people's understanding of their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In addition, as innocent citizens become increasingly accustomed to being searched by the police, politicians and police agencies are empowered to further expand the number of places where all are considered guilty until proven innocent.

Fortunately, this trend is neither inevitable nor irreversible. In fact, the high-profile public nature of these random subway searches provides freedom-loving citizens with easy and low-risk opportunities to "flex" their Fourth Amendment rights by refusing to be searched.

If you're carrying a bag or package into the subway, here's what you need to know and do in order to safely and intelligently "flex" your rights [keep reading]:
How dare we question the subway searches? We question because simply cranking up surveillance of citizenry rarely leads to real improvements in safety, and because those in authority are known to abuse the "randomness" of "random" searches.

Unless everyone entering the subway system were checked thoroughly with metal and explosive detectors as airline passengers are - an untenable measure in urban mass public transit - surveillance agents must rely solely on their experience, training, and personal discretion in selecting their search marks.

Police experience is valuable, no doubt, but given that hundreds or thousands or individuals pass through any given station during the day, with distractingly high peak densities during risky rush hours, police must focus on the most "suspicious-looking" people carrying packages. Presumptive suspicion, in this case, goes hand-in-hand with profiling by personal appearance and outward behavior.

Consider what happens to public cohesion and sense of place when only certain types of people are selected for random searches: like airports, New York subway stations will become grudgingly-tolerated ethnic profiling zones. In New York's case, I don't believe the actual risk reduction gained by random subway checks will outweigh the loss of civil liberties, and "civic public comfort," so to speak. To law enforcement officials, even a single averted terrorist incident will justify the measures; but at as Charlie Suisman write, consider the unease if a subway bomb goes off despite the measures.

It could easily happen. An innocent but "suspicious-looking" person carrying a backpack or parcel might be searched and detained while a not-so-suspicious-looking terrorist bomber next to them passes unhindered through the turnstiles with a rucksack full of plastique and a heart full of martyrdom.

Above all, we question because we know from our easily forgotten recent history where not questioning potentially leads. For those of you that believe that troubled times call for suspension of civil rights, remember that while our Founding Fathers wrote the constitution before 9/11, they knew firsthand what war can do.

MORE: [UPDATE] The Village Voice has a good piece today (7/28) on the subway searches, "Terror By The Numbers":
"The important thing to understand is that security that moves a threat around is useless. So if we spend billions saving New York City subways and the terrorists go into movie theaters, we have wasted billions of dollars," says Bruce Schneier, a California-based security expert. "Defending the targets is the wrong way to think, because for the terrorist it doesn't matter if he hits the subway or a nightclub or a restaurant or a supermarket or the line at the DMV to renew your driver's license or the Oklahoma City federal building."

Terrorists, however, aren't just trying to kill people. They're trying to scare them. Even if the random searches have a negligible chance of preventing a terrorist attack, they might still help to counter the terrorists' actual mission. As long as most of the public believes—even wrongly—that random searches make them safer, the searches could be a plus.

Schneier calls this "security theater." In the months after 9-11 people were afraid to fly. It was probably an irrational fear, but it was undeniable. So, Schneier says, "National Guard troops in airports with no bullets in their guns was a good idea. The psychological component is very important and shouldn't be minimized." [keep reading]

Bruce Schneier on Searching Bags on Subways
CTA Tattler: Is Chicago Next? and The Legality of Random Searches