Bollards, and Bloodhounds, and Bag Searches, Oh My…

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(Photo: The gap between real safety and the mere perception of it? Telling potential terrorists, in this case on the NYC subway, that you’re about to search their bags. Credit: The Age.)

[UPDATE — 6:25 p.m.: Kudos to the Chicago Fire and Police departments for such an enormous and speedy response to this evening’s fire event on the rush-hour Blue Line (Trib link, Sun-Times link), as well as to my fellow Chicagoans, who kept their heads in the midst of what could easily otherwise have turned into a panic-driven catastrophe. Early word suggests a northbound Blue Line train derailed between the Clark/Lake and Grand/Milwaukee stations, sparking a very smoky fire. No, it wasn’t terrorism, but the event was very well handled by emergency and CTA personnel. I bet Red Eye never thought its CTA Survival Guide would become so relevant so quickly.]

This month, the scrappy east-coast based transit blog, Live from the Third Rail, reported on homeland security-chief Michael Chertoff’s recent visit to Boston to mark the one-year anniversary of the terrorist transit bombings in London. Chertoff took a little ride on the MBTA Green Line and made a speech reminding urban transit riders to remain vigilant about the behavior of other passengers. Uh-huh.

After Katrina, Michael Chertoff does not exactly instill me with confidence in his ability to know what’s going on “out in the field”, or in this case out on the rails. Many of the security tactics we’ve ended up with on our nation’s transit systems in response to Homeland Security hype have been, well, less than efficient.

In Chicago: Bomb sniffing dogs led around by $8-an-hour security guards on the ‘L’, and the systemwide replacement of trash cans with ugly, see-through garbage bags hung from station pillars.

In New York: random bag checks on the subway, which, in order to avoid, potential backpack bombers need simply turn, walk away, and re-enter the system at a different station without a parcel-search table.

In cities across the country (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington come particularly to mind): The harassment, in many instances completely withouth legal or other regulatory justification, of railfans and tourists seeking to take souvenir snapshots of local rail systems.

I’ll admit, I love all the security cameras that have recently been installed throughout the rail system here in Chicago. That’s one element of Big Brother-ish security I have no beef with. Cameras at least guard against petty criminal activity, which no number of bomb-sniffing dogs will ever be able to accomplish.

But you can’t live life in a padded room, and misguided “security measures” like the above strike me as more useful in assuaging people’s fears than actually keeping the average transit rider safe from terrorist activity. There’s an enormous gap between what some people perceive as effective security measures and those security measures that actually have the power to protect.

Personally, I’d rather have the latter. Feeling safer during your transit commute to work might earn your vote for whichever local politician called for your city’s new telegenic bag-search strategy that you may have seen plastered all over your local evening newscast. But it won’t necessarily keep you alive.

I’m reminded of the concrete security bollards that were installed in the wake of the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings around thousands of office and government buildings across the country. They were supposed to protect against car bombs. They made lots of people feel safer.

How effective were they on September 11th?

Many of the security tactics we’ve ended up with on our nation’s transit systems in response to Homeland Security hype have been, well, less than efficient.In Chicago: Bomb sniffing dogs led around by $8-an-hour security guards on the ‘L’, and the systemwide replacement of trash cans with ugly, see-through garbage bags hung from station pillars.

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What do you think?