Ten years ago this month, I set out with a friend of mine on a trip to baseball stadiums around the eastern half of the United States. We spent three weeks seeing the country and enjoyed games at 12 stadiums in 10 cities. We took backpacks into the games, and it was, despite the clichéd nature of the phrase, a carefree time.
And then in September of that year, things changed. Backpacks were viewed suspiciously and banned at sporting events. Passenger screening at airports grew tougher, and armed guards starting popping up everywhere: Penn Station, Grand Central, even sometimes in subway stations. After the 9/11 attacks, the mood changed as security of our nation’s transportation network became a paramount concern.
Over the next few months, we’re going to hear a lot about 9/11 and its implications. With the ten-year anniversary of the attacks looming, retrospects on past decade will emerge to the forefront, and already, we see this trend happening. Yesterday, the AP, in a long-form piece, explored how security underground in the New York City subways has changed since 2001. With armed NYPD officials leading police dogs and carrying radiation detectors fronting the story, the piece is heavy on the surveillance.
For police officers and city officials, armed cops in Penn Station and Grand Central are the way of things now, and we are constantly told to say something if we see something. “This is the new normal,” Inspector Scott Shanley of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division said to the AP. “The only people who sometimes get raised up are tourists.”
The piece highlights what we know: Madrid, London, Moscow and Minsk are among the cities whose subways suffered terrorist attacks. The cops are diligent in New York, but the system is very porous. “It’s really a potentially very vulnerable environment — one that you can’t totally protect,” William Bratton from Kroll Security said. “That’s the reality of it. … It’s a unique challenge.”
As the article talks tangentially about civil liberties concerns that were quashed by the courts — random bag checks still aren’t very popular — it glosses over the bigger issues: Is all of the outward display of security for good or for theater? “I look at people and who’s to judge?” Robin Gant, a commuter heading to Grand Central said. “You just never know who might be the one. No matter how safe you feel, you’re always on yellow alert.”
There’s a line between a cultivating a culture of fear and working behind the scenes to ensure security. Just how well is it working? Yesterday, a reader sent me the following description of incident that happened to this weekend. I’ll share it in the original:
“I was just on a subway train and there was a brand new backpack, all alone in the car I entered into at 14th St. By the next stop I got off and told the conductor. She listened but didn’t seem to care. That 1 train traveled for OVER 20 MINUTES uptown til the MTA actually did something about it. Finally at 103rd Street, an MTA official came on to the car and just casually took the bag off.
“I imagine the MTA must have some sort of protocol to deal with this type of situation. When they constantly ask us to “say something” if we “see something,” what good is it if a train makes 13 stops before someone inspects a potential bomb? Do you think the train conductor followed protocol? And if so, is that protocol at all effective?”
Over the next few months, I’m going to spend some time exploring those questions. What is the proper protocol? Is it effective? Those are questions that need answering. We see television commercials and a print advertising campaign from the MTA based around exactly the scenario described above, and a backpack sitting alone in a subway car is a red flag. Those are the types of incidents that should be taken more seriously than police officers with guns at Penn Station. Are they or is the security theater just for show?