The 'War on Terror'

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It’s getting stranger, I tell you. Riding the subway from Vienna Station to Franconia-Springfield, at every stop the woman driving the train said in an over-elocuted voice, “A-ten-tion, customers. This is a Metro Safety Tip. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look up from your newspapers and blackbirds [it sounded like, though nobody seemed to be carrying any sort of bird at all] every now and then. Report suspicious activity to Metro employees immediately.”

Then — I can’t stand it: “Let’s be pre-pared, not scared.”

Nobody paid the slightest attention to these motherish admonitions. I was glad, picturing the whole car peering at each other furtively, ready to rat each other out to some bored kiosk worker who wanted to go home and would regard the reporting party as an irritating lunatic. Report suspicious activity on an urban subway at one in the morning?

Apparently the intercom is the only chance the drivers will ever have to be publicly noticed, and they make the most of it. “Let’s be prepared, not scared.” The phrase had the cutesy fatuity of a fifty-thousand dollar bumper-sticker slogan bought from an ad agency. Don’t run with scissors.

I wondered how much safer Metro Safety Tips made us. Obviously any terrorist with the brains of a pencil eraser would be sure not to look suspicious, and if he did nobody would notice. At rush hour, the trains are packed with people carrying briefcases and large bags. When the bars close, the cars swarm with drunks, people in turbans and dashikis and with dots on their foreheads, swarthy men with mustaches chattering in Spanish or languages unknown, transvestites, schizos conversing with God, their little voices, or the wall, and lots of people who look like revolutionaries.

There is something unconvincing about so many of these terrorism preventives. Yet they are everywhere. The papers carried stories about New York’s random searches of passengers on the subway, for example. Washington’s subway was pondering the same idea.

Random searches? If you randomly search every fiftieth passenger in rush hour, you have a two percent chance of catching a terrorist. Now that makes me feel safe. “Random”? Who are they kidding? The searches won’t be random. They will be searches of whoever the searchers feel like searching. Quite irrationally, officials said that anyone who didn’t consent to being searched could simply leave. This obviously would include terrorists, who would walk out and go the next station. That is, we will search everybody except those we are looking for.

When I was on the police beat, cops had to have probable cause to search anyone. This was defined as “an articulable reason for believing that a specific person was committing a specific crime.” Carrying a bolo knife and a severed head meets that standard. I’m not sure that riding a subway is adequately suspicious. New York’s searches seem to establish the principle that local jurisdictions can search, with no reason at all, anyone aboard public transit — buses, subway, trains, ferries. Why not people within fifty feet of governmental buildings, in crowded places thought attractive to terrorists, or on sidewalks?

And of course if they find illegal paraphernalia of a non-terrorist persuasion, such as drugs, or cigarettes without a tax stamp, they will arrest the bearer. Soon it will be pirated CDs. The police will naturally use “random” searches to conduct fishing expeditions.

It is curious that an entire system of constitutional protections can be dismantled just by ignoring it. I would have thought it more difficult, but it isn’t.

How much of this drama is actually intended to reduce the prospect of terrorism? Some of it, perhaps. Yes, it is a practical proposition to try to keep explosives off airplanes. People can occasionally sneak by with knives and whatnot, but the likelihood of being caught is very high, and presumably discourages the bomb-prone. Since the Israelis began taking security seriously, they haven’t lost an airplane.

But why do terrorists need to blow up airplanes? Everybody I talk to immediately thinks of multitudinous ways of getting a car bomb or a backpack into a crowd. Are terrorists thought to be blind to the obvious? Towing vehicles parked in public places does nothing to stop suicide bombers, who seem to be trendy. The urgings on the web site of Homeland Security, such as that we lay in plastic sheeting and duct tape and compile terrorism kits of food and water — does anybody do this?

The papers say that the mayors of both Washington and Baltimore want more cameras installed. Some such official, I forget which, wants more of the sort of camera that automatically reads license plates. Oh good. A permanent record of your every move. I don’t do pub-crawls with these mayors, so I don’t know whether they have the foggiest idea in their tiny little minds of the downstream implications. I doubt it, though.

Which brings up an interesting point. Many view this largely pointless circus as a deliberate attempt to impose — the phrase is getting wearisome — a police state. I don’t know, not being privy to the councils of the mighty. You know the theory: Tell the rubes that they’re in danger of some dread thing, tell them that they need to give up civil liberties in order to be protected, and then tell them that nothing happened because of the protections and now the danger has grown again so that….

If so, it works. The papers quote subway riders in New York as saying what a good thing searches are because they feel soooo much safer. That seems to be as far as their thinking gets. I forget whether it was Goebbels or Goring who I first saw endorsing the effectiveness of this useful principle.

But much of it to me looks like the anti-boredom efforts of officious dim-witted bureaucrats who desperately want meaning in their lives. A little terrorism is at least exciting, gets the juices running.

A friend in California puts it this way: “Fred, people like being searched. They spend their lives in meaningless jobs they hate and then watch stupid sit-coms on the box. Getting searched makes them feel important. It means someone thinks they might actually be dangerous. Swatted-out cops with submachine guns give them their only sense of adventure. It’s like being in a video game.”

Dunno. My suspicion is that if bin Laden manages another major attack, or anyone else does, we will see something very close to martial law. It will be welcomed by all but a noisy few because it will be to make them secure and to take care of them, and give a wonderful sense of living through parlous times, just like Sergeant Rock, and all.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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