Metro's bag searches will treat everyone like terrorists

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 7:39 PM

Metro officials often say that the safest transit system is one where nothing moves. They have yet to achieve their goal. But they edged a little closer last week in announcing that police squads will now stop riders from entering the stations and boarding the buses until their personal property is swabbed by officers and sniffed by dogs.

Fortunately, many of those transit commuters still have the option of traveling by car, where their property is likely to be safe from police search as long as they don't commit a crime, a distinction no longer available to Metro riders.

Well, you say, they must have some pretty serious inside information, or they wouldn't put riders through this.

They say no, they don't. These personal inspections are not a reaction to any specific threat to the transit system, according to Metro officials.

So why launch this so suddenly, a little over two years after Metro suddenly announced a similarly ill-received search program that was never implemented? Knowing what happened last time, why not talk with riders ahead of time and - to be really cutting edge - perhaps even work with citizen groups like the Metro Riders' Advisory Council on ways of improving security without subjecting riders to a government-sanctioned humiliation?

Think of it as your surprise holiday gift from Metro. Thanks for a year of enduring the biggest fare increases in the system's history, train doors closing in your face, rail car temperatures at 100 degrees and escalators that won't escalate.

But if you want to carry your own gift onto Metro, don't wrap it too well. The inspections are designed to take "only minutes," according to Metro, and in most cases won't involve opening your property. Unless, for some reason, "the equipment indicates a need for further inspection." You can always refuse an inspection, Metro says. Of course, your bag can't ride with you. Alternatively, you could just leave the station or not board the bus. But as Ann Scott Tyson and Derek Kravitz pointed out in their story, there is a possibility that you will be detained for questioning. Metro says the inspectors could show up anywhere at any time to conduct random checks. This isn't as likely to catch terrorists as to intimidate them. It might work. It certainly will intimidate riders.

Back in 2008, when Metro made its first sudden announcement that it wanted to search us, I talked about the travel rights of Americans with Arthur B. Spitzer, the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union office in the District.

Spitzer noted at the time that a right - like the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches - doesn't necessarily disappear all at once. It might just erode. A government intrusion that one generation finds objectional may become commonplace to the next.

I've thought about that since then, as airport bag X-rays evolved into personal gropings.

But hey, Metro says, they search transit riders in New York. And if it's okay in the Big Apple, who are we to object down here in D.C.?

Well, maybe as residents of the Capital of the Free World, we might give them a little lip about it.

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