This afternoon I briefly attended a meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board to comment on the question whether there should be random bag searches in the D.C. area’s subway system. A variety of other liberty loving D.C.-area residents spoke up against bag searches, noting the weakness of the practice in terms of security, the privacy consequences, and the insult to Metro riders in treating all as suspects. The chairman of the Riders Advisory Council asked that the program be suspended.
Along with restating the security weakness of random bag searches—it simply transfers risk from one station to another, from the subway to busses, or from the Metro system to other infrastructure—I emphasized the strategic consequences of the policy:
Terrorists try to instill fear and drive victim states to over-reaction. They try to knock us off our game. The appropriate response is not to give in to fear-based impulses. Obviously, we can and do secure what can cost-effectively be secured. And where infrastructure can’t be secured specifically, many other layers of security are protecting the society as a whole—aware people, ordinary law enforcement, targeted lawful investigation of terror suspects, and international intelligence and diplomatic efforts.
WMATA can play a part in our security, but in a very different way than by making a great show of desperately searching passengers. Refusing the bag search policy can signal to D.C. area residents and the nation that we are relatively secure, because we are. Al Qaeda is on the run, and the franchises it inspired are generally incompetent.
When America’s capital city abandons bag searching, it will be a small but important signal that terrorism doesn’t knock us off our game. Consistency in this message over time will weaken terrorism and ultimately reduce terror attacks from their already low numbers.
There will never be perfect security, but security measures that cost more than they benefit our security make us worse off, not better off. They make us victims of terrorism’s strategic logic.
Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay disagrees. An alternate member of the WMATA board, he is the picture of the politician in thrall to terrorism. During the discussion of the Riders Advisory Council report, he stated—as a moral obligation, no less—that he should assume the existence of substantial threats to the Metro system because some authorities claim secret knowledge to that effect.
Whether there are threats or not, this does not respond at all to the point that random bag searches would not address them. Again, they transfer risk from one Metro station to another, from Metro stations to Metro busses, or from the Metro system to other infrastructure in the D.C. area.
We often joke about politicians who say “something must be done; this is something; this must be done,” but when you see it live and in person, it’s really stupid.
McKay seemed to take righteous pride in abdicating his responsibility to understand basic security principles as they pertain to the Metro system. He did note the bind that the board is in. They’re damned if they do bag searches because of the complaints from the community, and they’re damned if they don’t because something bad might happen.
McKay’s choice is to spend the money of District-area governments and undercut the civil liberties of Metro riders so that, in the unlikely event a terror attack occurs, his political career is protected. He can say “I tried to stop it with bag searches.” Never mind that it was an ineffective measure.
McKay thinks he’s doing the right thing, but that doesn’t excuse his being a patsy to the terrorism strategy. He’s a limp rag, abdicating his security responsibility while pretending that he fights terrorism.