Metro's bag checks: Necessary nuisance for a real threat

Monday, March 7, 2011; 7:45 PM

HERE'S A MEMORY nudge for anyone who thinks random bag checks on Metro trains and buses are an unnecessary nuisance:

In the past eight years, terrorist attacks involving trains, buses, subways and transit stations have killed nearly 700 people and injured thousands around the world. According to a blog maintained by the Center on Law and Security at New York University's School of Law, the transit attacks have included London (2005; 52 dead); Madrid (2004; 190 dead); Moscow (85 dead in three incidents, the most recent last year); and Mumbai (200 dead in three attacks, in 2003, 2006 and 2008).

Transit attacks have occurred with lethal effect every year since 2002. And the casualty toll doesn't include plots that failed. Not long ago, a top New York City police official told The Post that of the 11 known terrorist plots against the Big Apple since Sept. 11, 2001, four targeted the subway.

We recount this chilling litany not to alarm passengers who rely on Metro but to provide a reality check: Metro remains an obvious and tempting target for terrorists who wish this county harm, and Metro officials would be remiss to ignore that fact. In October, federal officials arrested a local man in an alleged plot to bomb three Northern Virginia Metro stations.

It was in that context that Richard Sarles, the transit system's general manager, announced a program of random bag checks at bus stops and subway stations in December. The checks are quick - 30 seconds to a minute is typical - and relatively unintrusive; officers do not open bags but rely on swabs that are then scanned in special machines for traces of explosives. Passengers can refuse to have their bags checked, but if they do they cannot bring the bags onto a train or bus.

Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, has deemed the bag checks unconstitutional and threatened to sue Metro. His chances of winning are extremely slim; similar or more intrusive bag checks are carried out by the transit systems of New York, New Jersey and Boston, not to mention airports and countless museums, offices, stadiums, arenas and government buildings.

Mr. Barnes contends that Metro passengers, unlike those who visit stadiums or museums, often have no choice but to ride buses and trains and thus are more unwilling subjects of the checks, which in any event, he says, are ineffective.

But weighed against the threat to transit systems in this country and elsewhere, a bag check of 30 to 60 seconds is hardly an unreasonable inconvenience. Most security officials agree that random checks, while hardly foolproof, are a useful deterrent as part of an overall security strategy. While bag checks may prompt a terrorist to balk or try another approach, they may also serve to avert or call attention to a planned attack.

Metro has a dizzying array of problems. Let's hope that they won't include defending itself against a costly lawsuit over bag checks.

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