by J.D. Tuccille
July 22, 2005

Time to escape from New York

New York City is rapidly firming up its status as an Eastern Bloc theme park catering to people nostalgic for the good old days of secret police officers and petty official harassment. This week's blast from the totalitarian past features random bag searches on the city's subways, commuter trains, buses and ferries. In response to the devastating bomb attacks in London, randomly selected passengers carrying backpacks and bulky packages are being pulled aside to have their personal effects searched for nasty terrorist devices. Any other contraband found along the way is gravy for harried cops trying to make their arrest quotas.

Of course, commuters who thoughtlessly drop a few joints into their gym bags before heading to work can still evade New York's finest by turning around and walking away; passengers are free to decline to be searched as long as they then give up their hopes for a ride. Presumably, suicide bombers could do the same thing, and then try their luck at the next subway station along the line.

Or the bombers could strap explosives to their bodies and let the cops paw fruitlessly through their stinky gym clothes, since only bags and packages are subject to search.

Which is to say, this whole scheme is an exercise in public relations policing which is unlikely to make New Yorkers an iota safer. The searches are visible, aggressive -- and easily evaded. People worried about terrorists in the city that suffered the brunt of September 11 and who had those memories unpleasantly refreshed by headlines out of London, will see police doing something. The effect may well be soothing, but easily escaped as it is, it won't actually deter terrorists.

The searches also require lots of manpower. Given the 468 stations in the subway system alone, and the 4.5 million passengers who take the subway system to work on the average weekday, a significant percentage of the city's roughly 39,000 police officers -- not all on duty at any given time -- are going to be pawing through purses and shopping bags rather than patrolling the streets. Sure, they'll deter a subway pickpocket or two, and they'll certainly bust a few bus riders who are illicitly, but harmlessly, carrying dope or self-defense weapons -- especially those who forget they're carrying forbidden objects and so don't think (as a terrorist would) to turn away from searching police officers. But the searches will leave other venues relatively open to criminals who shift their hunting grounds.

To judge by press reports, reaction among mass transit riders to the new search policy is running overwhelmingly in favor. That's not surprising; people want to see their protectors protecting them -- or at least pretending to protect them. Benjamin Franklin said people who would give up essential liberty for temporary security deserved neither; we can take an educated guess at what he'd have thought of people who settled for just the illusion of security, and it's only an illusion that these searches offer.

But random searches of ferry, train and bus passengers break down yet another barrier between citizens and the state. Police gain license to toss through people's private possessions, posing less of a threat to organized terrorists than to the millions of Americans who casually run afoul of the modern maze of restrictive laws. And police gain another means of targeting disfavored groups and individuals; after all, we have only their word that the searches are truly "random."

It should be more surprising than it is that this policy has been implemented in once-feisty New York City. A city once so tumultuous that rival police departments engaged in open warfare has now become so tame that commuters meekly open their bags for inspections without cause.

Is it too much to hope that at least one traveling pack of Yankees fans will take violent offense at an order from a few over-aggressive cops to open their coolers?

Now that would be a scene worthy of New York.


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Copyright (c) 2004 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and Iíll use your polished skull as a beer mug.