More Security, Less Secure

The Washington, D.C., metro is following in the footsteps of the New York subway and is now conducting random searches of passengers. The justification given for further eroding the Fourth Amendment (which guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized") is, predictably, the same reason we’ve heard time and time again for ignoring the Constitution: "the Security Inspection Program aims to deter terrorist attacks."

But an effective deterrent must be just that – effective. Yet – just like with the New York City subway searches – a simple analysis demonstrates that the search program can be easily circumvented. To begin, it’s not possible to staff every metro station (the D.C. system has 86 stations, many with multiple entrances) to conduct round-the-clock searches (moreover, the searches are random, so not everyone would be searched.) So a would-be terrorist just has to be willing to find a station that isn’t conducting searches. And unless there was some compelling reason why a terrorist attack had to be conducted on a particular day at a particular location, a terrorist could simply come back on another day (or another time on the same day) when searches aren’t being done. Or several terrorists could try to gain access to the metro at multiple locations, relatively confident that at least one of them would get in at a station without being searched. Finally, a suicide terrorist could blow himself up while standing in line to go through a turnstile or waiting to be searched. In other words, the search program would only be effective if a terrorist allowed himself to be searched (and the D.C. metro program shares a common feature with New York: you can refuse to be searched and simply walk away).

Security expert Bruce Schneier described the D.C. metro search program as "security theater against a movie-plot threat." And it’s worth noting that in the aftermath of the July 2005 London tube and bus bombings, British authorities decided against conducting searches of riders – rightly making the cost-benefit calculation that the security benefits were minimal and not worth the cost.

Nonetheless, the general public seems more than willing to accept that the D.C. metro searches are effective and necessary. This doesn’t come as any great surprise, given that the public has accepted having to nearly disrobe and trying to fit as many 3-ounce containers into a quart-size bag to pass through airport security (and I can’t help thinking about George Carlin’s pre-9/11 piece about airport security). And this is the same public that seems to believe that warrantless eavesdropping is OK too – all in the name of protecting against terrorism.

What’s fascinating is that many of the people who don’t mind giving up their Fourth Amendment rights by being searched without probable cause to ride public transportation are the same people who would argue against any form of gun control and believe that the Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms" must be defended at all costs. Seemingly lost on them is that one of the reasons the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment (however cryptically worded) was for the people to have a way to protect against government taking away all of their other rights. In other words, preserving the Second Amendment doesn’t amount to much if the rest of the Constitution isn’t also preserved.

Ultimately, the D.C. metro random search program reflects the post-9/11 preoccupation with trying to prevent the unpreventable. It’s simply more security that has little or nothing to do with making us more secure.

Read more by Charles V. Peña

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.