Every time I go to the United States (I have just returned from two weeks in Washington), I am astonished by the antic security, by the proliferation of admonitions and alarms and inchoate fear. Now it is illegal to carry toothpaste on airplanes. I find myself wondering: Is this just another spasm of periodic hysteria, like Prohibition, the Sixties, and a Commie Under Every Bed? Or is it calculated political programming?
Most of it impinges at best lightly upon reality. For example, measures for security at airports are largely useless — if their purpose is to increase security. Think about it. Time and again the public-address system warns that vehicles left unattended in passenger-loading zones "may be ticketed and towed.” Why? By the time anyone notices that the truck is unattended, by definition the driver will be somewhere else. He will certainly be able to walk a hundred yards before the tow-truck arrives — and push the button. Boom. In the case of a suicide bomber (which is what we are worried about, no?) it doesn’t matter anyway. Boom.
For that matter, at any airport you can drive up, load a hundred pounds of suitcases containing god knows what onto a baggage cart, and go into a crowded waiting area. Boom. You probably couldn’t get them onto an airplane. Why would you need to? Terroristically, killing two hundred people in the airport is as good as dropping an airliner.
Most of security is just theater. Over and over, the PA system tells you not to leave baggage unattended or it may be destroyed by security personnel. This doubtless serves to make legitimate passengers watch their luggage. Who cares? A suitcase full of bras and socks isn’t perilous. But none of this keeps a terrorist from leaving a baggage cart and walking for two minutes, far enough to be outside the blast radius.
No, I’m not giving ideas to terrorists. Everything in this column is obvious to anyone with a three-digit IQ.
It gets sillier. If you ride Metro, Washington’s subway, you will incessantly hear things like, “Passengers! Look up from your papers occasionally. Be alert! Report any suspicious behavior to Metro employees.”
Yeah, sure. As a security measure, this is worthless. Why? First, a terrorist would be careful not to look suspicious. Second, what is suspicious behavior on an urban subway? You’ve got rastas, Goths, spike-haired young in leathers, semi-derelicts, blacks from the slums, people from India, Guatemala, Morocco, drunks, stoners, people talking to Mars through the transmitters the CIA put in their teeth, and swarthy men speaking languages you can’t identify. What’s suspicious?
So how do report any of this? You could get off the train at the next stop, go up the escalators, and find the Metro kiosk by the exit gates. You find a bored guy inside waiting for his shift to end.
“Hey, I saw this suspicious guy on the train!” you say.
“Yeah? What was he doing?”
“He had a backpack, and he was looking around a lot like he was nervous, and I think he was sweating.”
Oh. By now the train you were riding has left. The attendant has two choices. He can call in an emergency, have the train halted at the next stop, tie up the whole system at rush hour, and have police search the train, for a guy who looks like he might be sweating. Now, that’s a career-enhancing move. Or he can brush you off. Real world: Which?
Have you ever been on an urban subway at rush hour — which of course is when a terrorist would strike? They are madhouses. People are packed so tight they can hardly move. Everybody is thinking, “Come on, come on, get this damned thing moving.” Suppose you are aboard, and you see what appears to be a forgotten briefcase. What do you do?
The train is now sailing through the tunnel between Rosslyn Station and the Pentagon. Nobody can move an inch. You could scream, “Bomb!” However, the odds are much better than 999 to 1 that it isn’t. Years have passed since 9/11, with no terrorism on Metro. People leave things on trains all the time. Let’s say that you do scream. Chaos results, people very possibly are crushed to death in the panic, and someone pulls the Emergency Stop handle. You have just shut down Metro in rush hour. Further, you are in mid-tunnel. Oh good. The briefcase turns out to contain two sandwiches and a report from Agriculture on locust infestations in Chad. You probably go to jail.
And of course a terrorist would leave the briefcase on a timer to give himself a few minutes to leave Rosslyn Station and be walking innocently up Wilson Boulevard when the thing went off. Say, five minutes. Real world: What are the chances that anyone will notice the briefcase, take it seriously, and clear the train, in five minutes? Zero.
It’s theater. If people actually reported strange behavior however defined, or if Metro cleared trains for forgotten briefcases until the bomb squad arrived, trains would never run.
Are security measures going to keep terrorists out of the US? I just finished reading De Los Maras a Los Zetas, by a Mexican crime reporter. (I don’t think it is available in English.) He talks mostly about the drug trade, but mentions the smuggling of illegal immigrants. In particular he tells of a tunnel going under the border (estimating that at any one time about forty such tunnels are active) through which, he says, about 150 illegals a day passed. All it takes is $2000 or so and you are in the US. There is no border security, boys and girls. Not against anyone serious. There really isn’t.
Now, yes, we may well see more terrorist attacks on the United States. We certainly ask for them. Or they may be prevented by other means. But dramatic announcement on the subway are going to prevent nothing. Nor are color-coded terror alerts that you hear every five minutes in airports. What does anyone do differently when the level is orange instead of green? Cancel reservations? Wear body armor?
On examination, most of the measures purportedly taken to stifle Terror don’t. Opening mail without a warrant? It’s pointless once the terrorists know you are doing it, but effective in intimidating honest citizens. The same is true of warrantless wiretaps and searches. Does the gutting of habeas corpus make us safer against terrorists? Or merely suppress dissent by citizens?
The whole business looks remarkably like malign vaudeville, like mummery intended to accomplish two things. The first is to persuade the foolish that the nation is At War. Actually only the president is at war. The second, and I would like to be wrong about this, is to train the public to obedience. The formula is simple: Keep’em scared and you can do anything. It works. Americans are rapidly becoming accustomed to Soviet-style surveillance, to the state’s power to search and spy without restraint, to being barked at and ordered about by low-level federal employees. People deserve what they tolerate.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.