New Threat Renews Old Tactic

Random searches on the New York City subways are as much about the appearance of safety as safety itself

Random searches, of course, mean there's a chance that a bomber will get through. With 4.5 million subway riders daily, the potential bomber is a needle in a human haystack. The cops' goal is a psychological one, aimed at terrorists, says one ex-NYPD officer: "Keep them thinking that they may be searched at any time and any place."

A terrorist might still gamble that he or she will get through the screening, because a subway system is really hard to defend. While the London bombings took far fewer lives than 9-11, they actually posed a tougher task to security agencies, because subways are meant to be open and easily accessible.

"That's the downside," Heal says. "The upside is you can kill far fewer people in public transport than in airlines." For that reason, he adds, subways are "very second-best as far as the terrorists are concerned. It represents a move to a lower-value sort of target."


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  • That terrorists are switching to lesser targets could be a sign that the airlines have become more secure since the 2001 attacks. But it also reflects a reality of the security business: As you harden one target, others become more appealing. Israel is a case study of this shifting risk. El Al employs legendary security measures, so terrorists don't bother trying to hit Israeli jetliners. Instead they target malls, buses, and nightclubs. The casualties are lower, but there are still casualties.

    "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."

    However, the armed airport patrols after 9-11 also had a political impact. Even if they did reassure some people, the gun-toting men in camouflage also reminded passengers that there was a reason to be afraid in the first place. It's fear that spurred New York's random bag inspections, and fear might mute civil liberties complaints about the checks.

    After all, the bag checks were not ordered because of a specific threat, according to Mayor Bloomberg. Instead, the new policy is addressing the general risk posed by the stuff that terrorists might carry onto trains. That risk isn't new, but the worry about it has been stoked by the attacks on the Tube. In fact, New York's random bag checks were only implemented after the second wave of U.K. attacks. It's a little like putting on your seat belt after witnessing not one head-on collision, but two. Your chances of an accident aren't any higher, but your fear of one is. You buckle up.

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