Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Post editorial board lends unconvincing support to Metro bag checks

March 8, 2011 - 12:00 PM
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Bag checks at Braddock Road in December. (Sophia Carter)

Although Metro announced in December its intentions to start screening passengers' bags for traces of explosives, this appears to be the Washington Post editorial board's first word on the matter, occasioned by a threat from Johnny Barnes of the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the agency over the checks. The editors unequivocally throw their support behind the policy, calling it a "necessary nuisance for a real threat."

Personally, I don't think the screenings are much of a nuisance -- I'm a daily Metro rider and I'm still yet to encounter a checkpoint -- but I don't think they're necessary, either. And I don't believe the Post editors make a convincing case that they are.

No one is arguing that the threat of a terrorist bombing on Metro isn't real. As the Post notes, attacks on transit systems in London, Moscow, and Mumbai in recent years have claimed hundreds of lives. The real question is whether these bag screenings are effective -- a question the editors happily sidestep in their condemnation of the potential lawsuit. In reality, these sparse and highly visible screenings will do little or nothing to throw off determined terrorists. And if Metro officials and Post editors really believe they will, then they need to reread the 9/11 Commission Report.

Let's consider how these screenings play out. In a sprawling system of 86 stations, they appear to go down at no more than two or three stations at a given time, if they go down at all. And within those stations agents will pull aside the occasional bag-carrying rider according to a randomly chosen number -- every 15th rider, for example -- swab his bag, and send him on his way. Let me repeat: I ride the subway every day and I am yet to encounter a checkpoint, let alone have my bag screened. The math suggests there are better odds of a terrorist being foiled by a runaway escalator than by a random bag screening.

Back in October, federal agents arrested Ashburn, Va., resident Farooque Ahmed, who they accused of conspiring with al-Qaeda operatives to carry out a series of bombings at several Virginia stations. I doubt Ahmed or his cohorts would care one whit that officers just might spend an hour tomorrow morning very publicly checking every 20th bag that comes into the Braddock Road Metro station. And if they were concerned, they would have to do nothing more than check Twitter to see where the day's "surprise" screening is unfolding, then enter the system at the next station down the road. 

Do the checks do any harm? Perhaps if you're a civil-liberties nut, which I'm not. Still, it annoys me to see how Metro officials have overstated the usefulness of these screenings while downplaying their actual costs. Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn has said this screening initiative will cost nothing, thanks to federal homeland security grants. But, in fact, there is a price to pay. At a recent Metro hearing, Taborn said that three to four transit police officers are typically deployed to a bag-screening checkpoint. He explained this in the same hearing where he fairly lamented the fact that there are roughly twice as many station managers than there are transit cops in the Metro system at a given time.

I've been covering Metro for six months, and I talk to riders all the time. In all these conversations I don't think a single customer has brought up the frightening prospect of a terrorist attack on Metro. What do riders actually worry about? Being violently robbed, or getting randomly attacked by kids with nothing better to do. And every minute a transit cop is standing beside a TSA agent at the screening table is a minute he or she isn't patrolling a station or a train car.

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