28 October 2008

The Security Theatre Players welcome the Washington Metro

There is some hooplah around the libertarian blogosphere (1, 2) about the DC Metro's decision to conduct random bag searches.
Metro officials announced today that they will begin randomly inspecting backpacks, gym bags and any other containers that riders carry with them onto the bus and rail system, in an effort to deter possible terrorist attacks.


In the searches, transit police will choose a random number ahead of time, such as 17. Then they will ask every 17th rider step aside and have his or her bags searched before boarding a bus or entering a rail station.
Not true. Since the screenings are being conducted at the turnstiles, which are inside the stations, no one will be prevented from entering the station, which is the real problem I ahve with this plan. Just like airport security protects us (or "protects us") against bombs on planes, it does nothing to protect us from bombs detonated in the crowded security staging areas. In the Metro instance there's no reason to wait until you're on a train to set off your explosive. Any crowded area, including crowded areas before screening occurs, will do just as well.

Hell, you don't even need an explosive. I've always thought a couple of gun men providing raking fire from the top or bottom of a long escalator like Bethesda's would be an incredibly cost effective terrorist tactic.* A thousand commuters and tourists are completely enfiladed with nowhere to hide for a couple of hundred feet.

Also, Metro Transit Police is going to do this at every bus stop along a route? Every single one? Because if they don't then there's no point whatsoever. A terrorist will just notice the bag check at one stop and walk down the line to where bags aren't being checked.

So congratulations to the WMATA. You've decided to inconvenience 1.2 million people a day, without making the system as a whole any safer. Well done.

* When bored I commonly think how I would attack the area I'm in. It's a fun hobby, though perhaps I watched Red Dawn too many times as a child.

Also note this:
The announcement comes as the transit system faces an increase in robberies, thefts from vehicles at Metro parking lots and assaults on bus operators.
These screenings will do nothing to stop this type of crime. Of course the incentives for beaucrats are to spend millions to look as if they are guarding against the remote possibility of something really bad, rather than spend half as much to actually alleviate current problems. We've managed to redefine "security" as "anti-terrorist security" and we all suffer for it.
If transit police find illegal items such as drugs, the item will be seized and the person will be arrested. But Metro officials today emphasized that the purpose of the search is not focused on drugs or contraband.
That's the same bill of good we were sold about "border" checkpoints, and those have been used almost exclusively for drug offenses. (I use "border" loosely, since they're authorized within 100 miles of the US border by US v Martinez-Fuerte. This includes the entirety of Florida, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Hawaii, all but one county of Maryland, every major city on the West Coast, most of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, and big chunks of many more states. Here's a map for your reference. About two thirds of the US lives within the "border" region.)

And here's this, from DCist:
Anyone who refuses to have their bags searched, however, will be allowed to leave with their belongings — they just won't be allowed to enter the Metro system at the point of search. [...] Metro is installing signs outside station entrances informing riders of the potential of searches.
They'll tell people before they enter the station that they'll be searched once inside, giving terrorists the chance to just keep walking and bomb another day. And if anyone refuses search they can just turn around and leave. Obviously, this is the right thing to do from a 4th amendment perspective (what little of it is left anyway) but it also means this does nothing to catch terrorists. It will just drive them to other targets or force them to wait — possibly for entire days! — to strike.


  1. I've always thought a couple of gun men providing raking fire from the top or bottom of a long escalator like Bethesda's would be an incredibly cost effective terrorist tactic.*

    Also hand grenades thrown down the escalator would be effective. And loud. The people that don't get shot or sprayed with shrapnel will be deaf and dazed from concussion.

    When you're done, throw down AK, stroll away, take off your hat and sun-glasses, melt into the crowd.

    You're not the only one who plays the 'how would I attack this' game, bucko.

  2. Yes, grenades are key. I was just trying to present a scenario where no explosive devices were required at all since those are the focus of these new checkpoints.

    In a world where an empty cardboard box results in a call to the bomb squad, a couple flash-bangs and a smoke grenade would probably be enough to spook a crowd into stampeding. You might not even need any actual weapons to produce casualties in a crowded area like a metro station.

    (And I know I'm not the only one who plays this game, but I may be the only one who does among my more ...civilized... friends.)