Mak­ing a case for ran­dom check­points

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - DR. GRID­LOCK Robert Thom­son Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write to Dr. Grid­lock at TheWash­ing­ton Post, 1150 15th St. NW

I wrote in De­cem­ber that Metro is cre­at­ing a cli­mate of fear among rid­ers. This wasn’t about es­ca­la­tor main­te­nance. I was talk­ing about the new po­lice check­points where rid­ers will be ran­domly se­lected for ex­am­i­na­tion of their per­sonal prop­erty.

TDear Dr. Grid­lock: he [ Dec. 22] col­umn made me want to chew­nails.

The “cli­mate of fear” ex­ists: Metro didn’t cre­ate it, those guys with box cut­ters on four planes on Sept. 11, 2001, cre­ated it, aided by mem­o­ries of the Locker­bie bomber and the more re­cent “ un­der­wear bomber” who nearly blewup a plane over Detroit on Christ­mas Day 2009.

Any­one who isn’t at least dimly aware that he or she might at any time and in any place be an in­no­cent vic­tim of a ter­ror­ist at­tack is sim­ply not liv­ing in the real world. Tak­ing at least some pre­cau­tions against that risk is not “in­tim­i­da­tion,” it’s com­mon sense.

I spent a lot of time in London in the late 1970s, when the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army was putting bombs in ve­hi­cles, usu­ally with a spe­cific tar­get in mind. I was less than two blocks away from the site one day in 1979 when an IRA bomb ex­ploded in the park­ing lot of the­Houses of Par­lia­ment, killing an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal fig­ure. I en­dured the ran­dom searches by po­lice of tote bags and brief­cases, be­cause I fig­ured it was bet­ter than dy­ing. So did most Londoners.

Per­haps no “de­ter­mined ter­ror­ist” will sub­mit to a bag in­spec­tion, but not all ter­ror­ists have the train­ing and for­ti­tude of the 9/11 hi­jack­ers. Somemay be young, un­trained rad­i­cals us­ing eas­ily ob­tain­able chem­i­cals to make small bombs that might kill only a few­peo­ple — or merely blow a hole in a Metro car. It seems to me that whatMetro is do­ing might stop these less-de­ter­mined types, and that’s at least some­thing.

Ev­ery author­ity on the planet knows that mass tran­sit sys­tems of­fer ter­ror­ists, de­ter­mined or less so, ex­tremely tempt­ing tar­gets. Why not take at least mod­est pre­cau­tions? Sim­i­lar in­spec­tions— they’re not re­ally searches, since the bags al­most never need to be opened— have passed ju­di­cial muster in­NewYork and other cities: Washington, per­haps the Amer­i­can city most at risk for ter­ror­ist ac­tion (it is, af­ter all, the cap­i­tal), would be a log­i­cal place for any­one, de­ter­mined or not, to try to wreak havoc.

I also dis­pute your bi­ased ob­ser­va­tion that the cur­rent Metro ef­fort con­sti­tutes “a pro­gram of rider in­tim­i­da­tion.” The only rid­ers likely to be “in­tim­i­dated” by such searches are those with some­thing to hide— like­maybe an ex­plo­sive de­vice. Most of us will be at least some­what re­as­sured that at least min­i­mal safety pre­cau­tions are be­ing taken, even while we re­al­ize they might not be ad­e­quate.

What pre­cau­tions would you rec­om­mend? None, per­haps? Just let it hap­pen and hope you aren’t in the sta­tion or on the train where and when it does? Aren’t half-mea­sures bet­ter than no mea­sures? How­many bod­ies need to be piled in a Metro sta­tion be­fore you ac­knowl­edge that per­haps height­ened se­cu­rity would be a good idea?

— Linda Mey­ers, Ar­ling­ton

If tran­sit se­cu­rity in the nation’s cap­i­tal had not been height­ened over the past decade, then I, along with ev­ery other rider, would be out­raged. In fact, I’mcon­fi­dent thatMetro and var­i­ous lawen­force­ment agen­cies took many rea­son­able steps to pro­tect us.

AsMey­ers il­lus­trates, the con­se­quences of ter­ror attacks on trav­el­ers are hor­rific, and fail­ure to pay at­ten­tion would be folly. At the same time, trav­el­ers make choices ev­ery day based on what they con­sider rea­son­able. As a long­time rider, I rec­og­nize the ter­ri­ble po­ten­tial of an at­tack on Metro, but if I thought I was go­ing to get blown up, I wouldn’t get on the train.

Ev­ery trav­eler— ev­ery cit­i­zen of this re­pub­lic— has a right to ask whether it’s rea­son­able to have an armed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the govern­ment ran­domly stop trav­el­ers en­gaged in noth­ing more sin­is­ter than try­ing to catch a train and ask to ex­am­ine their prop­erty.

So far, Metro’s lead­ers have not of­fered a con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion of why this par­tic­u­lar mea­sure, car­ried out by a hand­ful of po­lice at a few sta­tions among the 86, is a rea­son­able ex­change of our pri­vacy for the pos­si­bil­ity of pro­tec­tion.

Metro did not dis­cuss this with its rid­ers, the peo­ple most di­rectly af­fected, be­fore set­ting up the po­lice check­points in De­cem­ber.

The pub­lic will get its first chance to en­gage in such a dis­cus­sion at a spe­cial meet­ing of theMetro Rid­ers’ Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil called for 6:30 p.m. Mon­day on the lobby level of Metro head­quar­ters, 600 Fifth St. NW, in the District. The coun­cil has in­vited the tran­sit po­lice to ex­plain the pol­icy.

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