Random Searches in New York’s Subway


Perhaps the greatest outrage about the new New York City government’s policy of random bag searches in the subway is the lack of outrage about it. Where are the stories about people turning around and not being searched, interviews with opponents of the policy, or even an in depth discussion of the legalities of it?

The way it has been sold to the public by almost the entire media in New York is "is it popular", as if general acceptance is justification for a policy which goes further legally than any other in recent times. Anecdotally, the media would have us believe it is a very popular move, something that knowing New Yorkers, and being one, I find hard to believe.

Regardless, popularity is surely not the issue here. If it were put to the popular vote, there are some states where the deportation of Arab-Americans would no doubt win local elections. We have a Supreme Court, or rather will probably soon say, we HAD a Supreme Court one of whose primary functions is to preserve the rights of the individual. If it weren’t for those "Activist Judges" it is quite possible schools STILL wouldn’t be integrated, there would be no freedom of choice when it comes to reproduction, and almost certainly religion and state would have become terribly mixed. But we have hardly heard a word from judges, or the ACLU, last bastion of personal rights in America, about the random searches of the effects of innocent commuters.

The only real discussion has been the specter of racial profiling, thus taking the argument away from "Should we be doing this at all?" to "How best do we do this?"

Not only is the policy invasive of our rights, it is totally ineffective and probably counter-productive. Suicide bombers are almost by definition fanatics whose whole life’s meaning has become this one act, something they’ve trained for, thought about, risked all for, possibly traveled vast distances to accomplish, and forsaken even life itself for. Are a few bored cops at a minority of subway stations and busses really going to prevent them from going about their horrible missions? Even in the BEST case scenario it will only lead to immediate detonation at the search point, an act which could kill more people than a detonation in a subway car itself. Indeed, in the "bring it on" ideal our president is famous for, aren’t these searches basically daring the bombers to strike and thus humiliate our feeble efforts?

We hear comparisons between this policy and airport searches. For a start, catching planes is optional, for most New Yorkers, catching public transport isn’t. Are we to risk being fired for tardiness because we turned around and didn’t want out possessions riffled through by the government?

Secondly, airport searches are fairly effective, they provide a real barrier to taking explosives and metal weapons onto planes. And finally courts have held that magnetometers and metal detectors are not "searches". By any standard, a policeman poking through your handbag or back pack is a search’.

And again we hear that famous cliché, the one President Bush can’t go on TV without saying – it "Sends a message." The message senders, these same people who oppose a vaccine for Human Papiloma Virus, morning after contraception, needle exchanges, and even condoms, love this policy. The whole over-worn (count how many times a day you hear it) "Send a message" cliché is usually employed as a veiled threat or justification for all manner of stupidities, from invading Iraq, to wellsubway searches. When you hear it, as well as that old chestnut "In this post 9/11 world", you just know something terribly stupid or some horrible policy is about to be announced. A policy like random bag searches.

The final horror here is that there’s nothing to suggest this is the government’s last demand. Freedom is usually destroyed in a gradual manner, it is less noticeable then. It is a short step from random subway bag searches, to random street searches, from making it optional to making it compulsory, from not asking for ID, to demanding it. And this latest policy has been put in place without even any terrorist actions against the United States! Imagine how few rights we’ll have left when something does happen here?

What freedom do we have when the government can do exactly what it wishes because it has manufactured a climate of fear like this administration has, and what freedom do we deserve when we as a society and as individuals just lie down and take it?

DAVID ANDERSON is a criminal defense attorney in New York City. He can be reached at: DocInNy@yahoo.com


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