Opening ourselves to blanket searches

August 08, 2005|by DAVID BUSSARD

I remember the first time I went to New York City. I went to visit New York University with my uncles and my mother, basically with the intent of showing her that New York, despite being a busy place, was a safe place for her youngest to be living for the next four years. And the most memorable moment of the entire trip was the one approached with the most trepidation - our journey from the George Washington Bridge to West 4th Street on the subway.

She was absolutely terrified. The whole time, clasping a death grip on every metal bar she could find. Meanwhile, I pushed my body against one of the metal poles and looked around. This was my first real encounter with mass transit on that scale. Call me crazy, but I liked it. It took only one ride to acclimate myself to the stops and starts of the subway.


The subway is the easiest, most convenient way of moving from place to place not just around New York City, but most metropolitan behemoths. Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia all employ bustling and successful systems of underground transportation.

However, the subway scares in London have sent U.S. mass transit systems on high alert. The day following the second wave of bombings on the London underground, officials in New York announced that the police would randomly search the bags of transit takers.

According to The Washington Post, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the searches would take place before passengers pass through turnstiles. Those who refuse to be searched would not be allowed to take the subway.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the New York subway system during rush hour, imagine trying to shove 30 people into a crackerjack box. Or 4.5 million. Add to that sweltering heat in the summertime. On an average weekday in New York City, 4.5 million people take mass transit.

The subway system in the city has over 465 stations, many of which have multiple entrances and exits. For those of you unfamiliar with numbers, that's a lot of stations. Can you imagine having to set up police search teams at each station within the city? Now, picture that on a nationwide scale. Every station in the country with guards and search teams. It's absurd. The cost of the forces required to search and protect such a vast system would be staggering to the local and national taxpayer, not to mention the terrible inconvenience placed upon the city commuter.

And what are they searching for? A literal needle in a haystack. Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Donna Lieberman said in a statement, "The NYPD can and should investigate any suspicious activity, but the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from conducting searches where there is no suspicion of criminal activity." An obvious concern produced by these searches is the prospect of racial profiling.

Most urban areas are infused with ethnic variety, and one must be sensitive to minorities even in times like these.

And then there is the other, more bleak prospect. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have witnessed a dramatic decrease in civil liberties. After the first of the London bombings, police were given shoot to kill orders. After the second, they took advantage of those orders, shooting Jean Charles de Menezes in the head five times in front of dazed commuters on board a subway car.

London police were slow to offer any real information to the public regarding the man. This lag in getting information to the public has increased significantly since 9/11, and will probably only worsen. And now, with the NYPD guarding the subway systems in New York, could something similar happen here? Someone shot, in the presence of everyday commuters simply because "he was a bad guy"? As long as the populace at large is willing to give away their personal liberties for a false sense of security, safety and comfort, this sort of thing will continue to happen.

The recent series of events that has occurred both here and abroad is quite frightening if it is to be used as a sign of things to come. I've often regretted never getting around to reading the Orwell classic "1984," however judging by the present state of things, perhaps all I'll have to do is keep up with the news.

David Bussard is a Clear Spring resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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