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Who created climate of fear on transit?

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 6:50 PM

I wrote in December that Metro is creating a climate of fear among riders. This wasn't about escalator maintenance. I was talking about the new police checkpoints where riders will be randomly selected for examination of their personal property.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The [Dec. 22] column made me want to chew nails.

The "climate of fear" exists: Metro didn't create it, those guys with box cutters on four planes on Sept. 11, 2001, created it, aided by memories of the Lockerbie bomber and the more recent "underwear bomber" who nearly blew up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Anyone who isn't at least dimly aware that he or she might at any time and in any place be an innocent victim of a terrorist attack is simply not living in the real world. Taking at least some precautions against that risk is not "intimidation," it's common sense.

I spent a lot of time in London in the late 1970s, when the Irish Republican Army was putting bombs in vehicles, usually with a specific target in mind. I was less than two blocks away from the site one day in 1979 when an IRA bomb exploded in the parking lot of the Houses of Parliament, killing an important political figure. I endured the random searches by police of tote bags and briefcases, because I figured it was better than dying. So did most Londoners.

Perhaps no "determined terrorist" will submit to a bag inspection, but not all terrorists have the training and fortitude of the 9/11 hijackers. Some may be young, untrained radicals using easily obtainable chemicals to make small bombs that might kill only a few people - or merely blow a hole in a Metro car. It seems to me that what Metro is doing might stop these less-determined types, and that's at least something.

Every authority on the planet knows that mass transit systems offer terrorists, determined or less so, extremely tempting targets. Why not take at least modest precautions? Similar inspections - they're not really searches, since the bags almost never need to be opened - have passed judicial muster in New York and other cities: Washington, perhaps the American city most at risk for terrorist action (it is, after all, the capital), would be a logical place for anyone, determined or not, to try to wreak havoc.

I also dispute your biased observation that the current Metro effort constitutes "a program of rider intimidation." The only riders likely to be "intimidated" by such searches are those with something to hide - like maybe an explosive device. Most of us will be at least somewhat reassured that at least minimal safety precautions are being taken, even while we realize they might not be adequate.

What precautions would you recommend? None, perhaps? Just let it happen and hope you aren't in the station or on the train where and when it does? Aren't half-measures better than no measures? How many bodies need to be piled in a Metro station before you acknowledge that perhaps heightened security would be a good idea?

- Linda Meyers, Arlington

If transit security in the nation's capital had not been heightened over the past decade, then I, along with every other rider, would be outraged. In fact, I'm confident that Metro and various law enforcement agencies took many reasonable steps to protect us.

As Meyers illustrates, the consequences of terror attacks on travelers are horrific, and failure to pay attention would be folly. At the same time, travelers make choices every day based on what they consider reasonable. As a longtime rider, I recognize the terrible potential of an attack on Metro, but if I thought I was going to get blown up, I wouldn't get on the train.

Every traveler - every citizen of this republic - has a right to ask whether it's reasonable to have an armed representative of the government randomly stop travelers engaged in nothing more sinister than trying to catch a train and ask to examine their property.

So far, Metro's leaders have not offered a convincing explanation of why this particular measure, carried out by a handful of police at a few stations among the 86, is a reasonable exchange of our privacy for the possibility of protection.

Metro did not discuss this with its riders, the people most directly affected, before setting up the police checkpoints in December.

The public will get its first chance to engage in such a discussion at a special meeting of the Metro Riders' Advisory Council called for 6:30 p.m. Monday on the lobby level of Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW, in the District. The council has invited the transit police to explain the policy.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. His blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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