The Search is on for Safer Subways

July 26, 2005 |
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On Friday afternoon, on the first day of the new random-inspection-of-bags policy on New York City's mass transit, I thought I'd see for myself how it was working. What I found reveals something about counterterrorism--and also about journalism.

I am standing in the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal. I figure that if I were an al-Qaida terrorist, this would be a pretty good place to strike. But although I saw a few cops standing around--when have I not seen cops at Grand Central?--it was pretty much the usual rush hour crowd, rushing around uninspected.

So, looking for trouble--that's part of my job as a journalist, to look for trouble--I head over to the Times Square shuttle train. I follow a middle-aged lady pulling a suitcase on rollers. Is anybody going to search her? She climbs on and off the train, unhassled. In fact, I don't see a cop anywhere.

At the Times Square station, hub of nine different train lines, it's the usual scene of spontaneous order, hundreds of thousands strong. If your goal were to gain worldwide headlines through an evil, murderous attack, this would be the spot. But once again, not only do I see no terrorists, but barely any cops--and no searches.

Looking for some kind of angle, I walk up to a fellow who is holding a sign that reads "Free Stress Test." The man, who calls himself Nate, is a Scientologist, offering a free diagnostic hookup to the Tom Cruise machines. Thinking myself clever, I ask Nate if there's been an uptick in his traffic, what with all the new stress in the world in the last few weeks. He looks at me strangely. I guess that's my answer.

If I had been a beat reporter, sent out to "get the story" about the new random- checking policy, I'd have been getting nervous about now. That is, I would not want to call my editor and say, "Hey, boss, there's really not much visible difference out here--like none." After all, we both would have seen the headlines already in the morning tabloids -- "Halt!" in the Post, "Ride and Seek" in the Daily News and "The Search for Security" in Newsday--giving the impression, bolstered by photos, that there was a Big Brother, or at least an Officer Friendly, on every subway car.

So I, too, would have trolled around underground until I found a cop doing random searches. One might call it the Deadline-Driven Information Illusion: You look for it, until you find it--or else. If I had kept looking long enough, I would eventually have found someone protesting the search of his bag. And if I were really lucky, I would have found a group of protesters. That might have gotten me and my "news" account on the front page.

But none of that happened. Instead, I observed a commuter day that seemed like any other day.

Yes, I know that big stuff is going on, for real, around the world, as bombs go off all over Eurasia. And in London on Friday, the cops shot and killed the wrong guy; they thought he was a terrorist, when he was, in fact, an electrician.

Meanwhile, the temperature's rising here, too, as random crazy people collide with the random-search program, thin as it might be. On Sunday, Penn Station was evacuated for more than an hour because some jerk threw his backpack at an Amtrak agent, declaring that it was a bomb.

So this is the way we must live now. What 9/11 and other events taught us is that terrorists don't need a government to sponsor them, they just need murderous intent and a bathtub full of chemicals.

And so, all of sudden, millions of angry people are now potential terrorists. And they are everywhere. I don't know whether random searches are the answer, but I do know this: We will look back and say that subway searches were easy, compared to all the other homeland-defense tactics we will be using in the years to come.

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