So Tuesday of last week, it’s pissing rain and blowing fifty as I stagger into the Copley subway station. I recall the Transit cops in neon jackets I’d seen scanning bags at one of the entrances to the Davis Square station that morning, in light of the Moscow subway bombing the day before. Sure enough, a tiny Asian lady in bright yellow sees my rain slicker and messenger bag and lights up. “Excuse me,” she says. “Could I ask you to step over to those officers in the corner?” I cock my head to get her to repeat it; I heard her the first time, but I want to formulate a response. She repeats it.
“Are you asking me if I consent to a search?”, I ask.
“I’m sorry; no.” One hand up in apology. “Does this mean I have to leave the station?”
I didn’t quite catch her response; I was already heading back upstairs. The rain had slowed, turning the evening humid but breezy: the temporary eye of the storm. I walked the half dozen blocks to Hynes and caught the bus to Harvard there. Nobody was scanning bus passengers.
We have security expert Bruce Schneier to thank for making the term “security theater” – or, the appearance of security in lieu of actual safety – popular. Checking people’s bags for explosives is a great way to keep people from blowing up trains; it’s a terrible way to stop terrorism. It’ll simply divert terrorists to unsecured outlets. Schneier suggests that improving U.S. intelligence on terrorist activities and beefing up emergency response would be more effective. In the event of a terrorist attack, intelligence will be more likely to trace the attack to its masterminds, and a stronger first response will minimize casualties and infrastructural damage. But that’s not proactive enough. Doing Something is better than Doing Nothing in the political realm, no matter what Something you choose to do.
This is pretty obvious if you think about it a moment. The only reason scanning random travelers bags should still mystify you is if you think preventing terrorism is the priority. It’s not. Stopping a repeat attack is the priority, because if 37 people died in Boston the same week from the same method as 37 people died in Moscow, half of the MBTA would be out of a job. Hell, if 7 people died. After an incident of newsworthy proportions in a democratic bureaucracy, the first question is always who could have stopped this. Consider all the focus put on the Phoenix memo following the World Trade Center razing; oh, if only someone had taken this seriously. Well, sure. If INS had forbidden all Egyptians to enter the country, the September 11th attacks couldn’t have happened either. Should every memo that crosses the FBI Director’s desk be taken as gospel? This is why “hindsight” isn’t considered a virtue: the ability to scrutinize the past and determine exactly what went wrong doesn’t make one a better leader. You prevent repeat attacks by anticipating the opponent’s strategy, not by obsessing over their tactics. But that requires foresight, unbiased thinking and sacrifices. Putting National Guardsmen at the airports with M16s takes a phone call.