Rail Security: A Gordian Knot

Earlier this week, two women suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow subway during rush hour, killing 39 people.  Rail transit was also the target of the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people and the 2005 London tube bombings that killed 52 people.  Public rail transportation is an attractive target for terrorism because of the potential for many victims in a small space.  Indeed, in February, Najibullah Zazi – an Afghan immigrant who is a legal permanent U.S. resident – pleaded guilty as the leader of a plot to bomb the New York subway system.  But since mass transit rail is designed to move a large number of people (the Moscow Metro carries over 6 million daily passengers, nearly 3 million passengers travel on the London Underground daily, and the New York City Subway has more than 3 million daily passengers) security is a Gordian knot.  [In Greek legend, the Gordian knot was the name given to an intricate knot used by Gordius to secure his oxcart.  His knot had no ends exposed to unbind it and an oracle foretold that he who untied the knot would rule all of Asia.  Many people tried to undo the knot but all to no avail.  Thus, the Gordian Knot represents the difficult, the intractable, and often the insolvable problem.]

About the only reasonable and effective thing to do for mass transit rail is to increase the number of security personnel at stations and riding on trains – both as a deterrent and to watch for suspicious activity.  The more conspicuous, the better.  For example, in New York after the Moscow bombings special units distinguished by their special black uniforms, helmets, and body armor were dispatched to transit facilities.  At a minimum, this kind of security display is more likely to at least scare off a would-be terrorist at that particular instance – but may not deter a more determined terrorist who is willing to keep trying until he (or she) encounters a situation without such security.  In other words, security personnel cannot be everywhere all the time so there is always a possibility that a terrorist will find a crack to slip through.

If bombs are the primary threat of concern, then more bomb-sniffing dogs also makes sense as a security measure.  Indeed, London, New York, and Washington, DC, deployed more dogs after the Moscow bombings.  To be sure, bomb-sniffing dogs aren’t perfect and aren’t the silver bullet solution to the problem of bomb detection – but they have been used with success in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At least they would increase the likelihood that you could find someone carrying explosives (and have greater confidence that someone suspected of carrying explosives was indeed doing so).  Like security personnel, however, they can’t be everywhere at once.

Probably the worst security measure is random searches.  With millions of people traveling on a rail/subway system, the actual odds of catching a would-be terrorist are probably about the same as winning the lottery.  Moreover – especially during rush hour – a terrorist wouldn’t have to actually get to a train platform and could detonate a bomb at the station entrance (before a security checkpoint), which is likely to be just as crowded.  Of course, that hasn’t stopped New York and Washington, DC, from conducting random searches (even before the Moscow bombings).  Naturally, both jurisdictions would claim such searches (clearly a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant) are effective because there haven’t been any subway bombings in either city.  Of course, neither have any terrorists been caught by such searches.

More perplexing is the view held by Raymond Tanter, who teaches a Terrorism and Proliferation class at Georgetown University:  "The next frontier of Homeland Security will be on how you can tighten up rail security like airline security is tightened."  Not to put too fine a point on in it, but … WTF?  Does Tanter seriously think we can subject millions of mass transit passengers to individual security checks? People already have to show up several hours early at airports to get through security (in many cases spending more time getting through security than they do flying to their destination).  Imagine what airline-like security would do to commuters on a daily basis.  And while a lot of people seem willing enough to accept more intrusive airport security as necessary, how many would take the same view for their daily ride to and from work?  What about the prospect of body scans to ride the rail?

Back to the Gordian knot … Eventually, Alexander the Great solved the problem posed by the Gordian knot by cutting it in half with his sword to unbind it.  The key to unbinding the Gordian knot of mass transit rail security is to accept risk.  That is, to admit that it’s impossible to solve the problem.  In many respects, that is exactly what the Israelis have done with their bus system.  It’s not that they have zero security, but they understand that 100 percent security is impossible and guide their actions accordingly.  So rather than trying to prevent and protect against every conceivable attack, they accept the risk and are resilient in their ability to respond and recover from an attack.  Indeed, when a bus or bus stop in Israel is bombed, they don’t shut the whole system down.  [It’s also worth noting that the two Moscow subway stations that were bombed were back in service within hours.]

Finally, there is another important lesson to be learned from the Moscow subway bombings.  Russia’s Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov said those responsible had links to the North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya.  While many people will focus on the fact that the region has a large Muslim population, doing so misses the point.  More important is the source of Muslim grievance and the reason for violence in Chechnya – Russian occupation.  If the United States is worried about the possibility of subway terrorism, it would do well to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as practice a less interventionist foreign policy around the world, particularly in Muslim countries.

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.