Metro's "Show of Force" Irks Many

Are searches catching any terrorists?

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Thursday, Jan 6, 2011  |  Updated 10:09 AM EDT
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Metro's "Show of Force" Irks Many

NBCWashington.com

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“When the world changes.”

That’s when Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik, speaking at Monday’s Metro Riders’ Advisory Council, said WMATA will end random bag searches of Metro passengers. Despite the high-profile subject -- more than 100 people turned out, a record that exceeded even meetings on fare hikes -- neither Chief Michael Taborn nor WMATA interim general manager Richard Sarles bothered to attend.

Out of more than 30 speakers from the public, just one supported the searches. Some were philosophical, like the Air Force colonel who said, “Regardless of whether the searches are constitutional, they are not right. If we give up liberty for security, we dishonor the sacrifice” of America’s soldiers. Johnny Barnes from the regional ACLU said, “We can be safe and free, but we are not safe if we are not free.”

But other opponents focused on the impracticalities of the searches, suggesting they are just for show. A rider named Andy Hunt said if he can walk 10 blocks to avoid a peak of the peak fare, a would-be terrorist can easily walk to another Metro station.

This is the biggest failing in the policy. While the Transportation Security Administration may be a hassle at the airport, at least everyone goes through screening. With the WMATA searches, a would-be bomber could enter, see a search going on, and just walk off to another station where no search is being done.

In fact, Pavlik conceded that someone who refused a bag check could exit the station and board the next Metro bus -- as if terrorists have never blown up buses before. Metro police also said purses and smaller bags do not qualify for searches, though a bomb could easily fit into a purse.

Despite all this, Metro Transit Police Captain Kevin Gaddis told the crowd that the five station checks that have already taken place, resulting in about 100 searches, were all “successful.” Does that mean MTPD nabbed the next Richard Reid? No. When pressed, Gaddis said this meant the screenings were completed with a minimum of passenger delay, and that a “show of force” was made against terrorism.

But this should not be where Metro is focusing. As rider Hunt also remarked, Metro itself has killed and injured more riders than any terrorists in the system. That’s no surprise. It’s not that Metro is exceptionally careless (though some would say it is). It’s just that acts of terrorism, while horrific and high-profile, are very rare.

You are nearly 1,100 times as likely to die in a car accident as in a terrorist attack, yet we all get behind the wheel each day. You are a dozen times as likely to accidentally suffocate in your own bed at night as to die in a terrorist attack, but it doesn’t keep us up nights. You are 12,600 times as likely to die of cancer, and nearly 18,000 times as likely to die of heart disease, as to die in a terrorist attack.

You are even eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. Maybe WMATA should search all cops.

Pavlik says the policy will change “when the world changes.” But the world has changed -- though not in the way he means.

Though it’s been forgotten in an age where “terrorist” is a pejorative tossed around too freely, the term originally meant the commission of a shocking act directly impacting a small number, with the goal of terrorizing a larger number into fear or capitulation.

That goal has been reached. Every would-be attack, no matter how implausible, leads to another round of fear, another round of crackdowns, another “show of force.” And still, an attacker or two slips through, because it is simply not possible to catch every bad guy every time.

We have not learned to live with terrorism. We have learned to live with the security state. And that’s why time-wasting indignities like these futile Metro bag searches will continue.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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