Friday, July 22, 2005

Too High a Price for Safety

Yesterday, AFP reported that New York has initiated random bag searches on the NY subway. The story was picked up this morning by CNN. Again, we're hearing the same rationalizations as those who support the Patriot Act: lawmakers and everyday citizens alike are talking about how they are willing to sacrifice their basic civil rights and personal freedoms for the sake of "safety". CNN quotes one commuter as saying "I think any measures for safety that aren't terribly intrusive are worth doing." When did personal freedom and privacy become a fair-weather right? The commuter quoted above is expressing a common sentiment: as long as the compromise of my personal freedoms fits within my schedule, than it's okay. He is not arguing for or against the ideology behind random searches of one's personal property, his only concern is whether or not he will be made an extra ten minutes late for work! This lack of concern for this increasingly gestapo treatment of the American citizenry is cause for some concern. The ACLU and other organizations have launched a series of campaigns designed to combat the increasing infringement upon basic human rights as ascribed to the people by the Bill of Rights, but they will get nowhere if the everyday person is more afraid of terrorism than the devastation of their Constitution. Though terrorists may be chipping at the deceptive feeling of safety that once encompassed the US, tactics like these random bag searches are chipping away at America, itself. After all, those who want to retain their right to privacy will be denied access to the subway. According to the article:

Anyone who refuses a search will be turned away, and those caught carrying drugs or other contraband could be arrested.
Sure, we live in a society that is under fear of terrorist attack, but why are we so docile at the idea of having our personal possessions checked? Isn't there something to be said about reasonable suspicion? Furthermore, these random bag searches are shaping up to be an all-out assault on the working class. As shown by a study done in Los Angeles, those who use short-distance or urban rail and buses are predominantly low-income. According to the study, in LA, the median income of those using urban rail is $30,000-$34,999 while those who use buses have a median income of $15,000-$19,999. While the NYC median incomes will differ from these numbers, I think it's safe to conclude that people with six-figure salaries won't be travelling the subways. Moreover, according to that study and NYC MTA studies, those who use public transit in NYC are predominently people of colour. Which means that those being inconvenienced, turned away, and having their personal freedoms compromised in these random bag searches are not the rich, white elite who can afford to take a cab; it's the poor, already disadvantaged, working-class minority having their possessions rummaged through. Conservatives like LaShawn Barber are furious with the bag searches, but not because of the personal freedom issue. No, conservatives want racial profiling -- so that the only people being inconvenienced are "Arab-looking" young men (Ms. Barber's word, not mine).
Random backpack searches. They know exactly the type of person to search: young, male, and Arab-looking. But they’ll stop you, white American man minding your own business, and you, black woman visiting from Arkansas.
It occurs to me how hypocritical this is. Neocons recognize past racism, but think that racism now, if it even exists in today's "enlightened" society, doesn't hold nearly enough sway as the race activists would purport. And yet, they're the ones advocating that we use race to discriminate and oppress others. Taking away personal freedom is okay, says the conservative, so long as the increasingly Orwellian government keeps most of my civil rights intact. They keep talking about the Islamofascist, but perhaps conservatives should be pointing that fascist-finger the other way. Update: The NYCLU has launched a study to determine the constitutionality of these random bag searches. If you are searched on the NYC subway, please take a minute to fill out this brief NYCLU survey.


Anonymous sheldiz said...

Nice post, Jenn. I think this is going to be a very interesting nationwide debate. Just a few comments. First, I'm assuming when you say, "The ACLU and other organizations have launched a series of campaigns designed to combat the increasing infringement upon basic human rights as ascribed to the people by the Bill of Rights, but they will get nowhere if the everyday person is more afraid of terrorism than the devastation of their Constitution." I'm assuming you're referring to the 4th amendment which discusses unreasonable searches, arrests, and seizures of property? b/c the constitution does not explicitly discuss the right to privacy anywhere in the document. Its a grey area that i think will become a big part of this debate (as it has in the patriot act, the informations acts, etc). Strict constructionists will argue that since there is no passage in the constitution that outright gives states (and therefore citizens) the right to privacy, it can't be argued that we have that right. (justice renhnquist is a current example of this.) This is typically considered a conservative approach b/c many conservative Justices have followed this idea. On the other hand, judicial activists and even originalists (depending on how you define originalist) will be argue that the constitution is meant to be interpreted (and in some cases, manipulated) to fit the times. I think lefty congresspeople, senators, and even lobbyists need to be very careful in using the constitution in the discussion about searches on the subway, b/c, especially given the current conservative government, they will lose.

Its a tough argument. As a strong supporter of the ACLU, I want very much to say "screw these searches!" But if i'm on a train where a person gets randomly searched and a bomb is found and removed -- its going to be tough for me to say i don't support the searches. I sympathise with the potential 'invasion of privacy' arguement, but if i don't care about it on an airplane, why should i care about it on a metro?

The reason the US does not search bags regularly at train stations, bus stops, and metro/subways is not because the government doesn't want to invade privacy. Its because there's a certain amount of inconvenience assosiated with searches that daily commuters don't want to deal with. We don't mind on flights, b/c we don't fly everyday and we're so used to having to get to the airport a hour early. I don't want to have to get to Metro Center and hour early to take a ten minute metro ride.

I think the random searches might be a decent compromise. I understand your point about the income categories that typically use public transportation. However, I don't think its that deep. Will more lower SES people get searched, yeah... but just because there are more on the train. And if it really is random, then there's just as good a chance that if there really is a bomber on the train, he or she will get searched too.

My problem with random searches comes into confiscation of items or detainment of suspects that are not related to the task at hand. Its going to be hard to regulate. I wish there was a way to make a law that only items that suggest a danger to others could be subject to action. But its impossible. For example, lets say i get busted with an Oz of grass in my purse. Who's to say i'm not endagering others because i'm intending to sell said grass to underage kids, therefore plunging them into a life of crime? (oooh, shelly, dial down the legalization rhetoric for a sec....)

Wow, i have gotten off course -- anyway, i guess i have to alot to say on this topic. My point is that, i don't know whether i disagree with the idea of random searches or not. I do, however, believe if we're not careful we could be looking at a serious slippery slope situation here. Where do we draw the line? I don't think its a race/class/ethnicity issue, so much as a criminalization of society as a whole.

7/22/2005 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Random searches are now just what they always are: the subjugation of the poor and minority for the safety of the ruling class. When random searches were used in our nation's inner-cities against young Black men on the guise of proactive crime-prevention, no discussions of inconvenience were involved. White people feel safer when they believe that criminal minorities are being checked by their government.

Further, random searches dismember the same right to privacy that keeps abortion legal in this country. Without tackling the continued legitimacy of that right before the Roberts nomination is decided, I have to say that the defense of America's sociopolitical right to privacy is increasingly important right now, as we don't want a corporate government telling us what we can do with our bodies, or where we can go with them.

We can't believe we have a Constitution that protects free trade and free association and free expression without protecting privacy; otherwise, the very fabric of ownership and property breaks down. Governments that so impede the private sphere so that practically every action a citizen can make must fall under governmental regulations of acceptable conduct (or the citizen faces police sanction) are authoritarian governments, like Cuba. I don't want to live in Cuba.

This country is using terrorism to enact more invasive governmental involvement that ever before. I refuse to ride the subways right now; I don't want to have my bags checked by anyone. And frankly, random searches on planes haven't made anyone's lives safer.

Also, I'd rather not have to explain to anyone where I'm going and what I'm doing because I fit some overzealous policeman's mental image of a criminal or a terrorist. Frankly, those who believe that their outward appearance does not and could not resemble a criminal or a terrorist in anyone's estimation are often those who are undecided or in support of these Draconian searches, imo. That explains the LaShawn Barber quote, to me.

The searches do nothing but step on people's rights' in order to give an illusion of public safety; they are inefficient, wasteful, and should end immediately.

7/22/2005 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger phillyjay said...

I don't like the idea of only profiling arab looking men, so random searches although I'm against them, make more sense to me.Not because of PCness as I know some would claim, but because anyone of any race has the potential to be a terrorist.

7/22/2005 06:16:00 PM  
Anonymous rtother said...

Wouldn't the random searches also benefit those demographics too? I mean, if a bomb is found through a random search, those people riding the subway will continue to live instead of dying in an attack.

7/23/2005 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

If you look at it this way, random searches are only a cop out to back up the federal forces from their screwups.

I mean, if they were doing their jobs to start with, these people would be having a lot harder time getting in and causing trouble and regular people would be having a lot easier time getting in rather than the other way around. Also, the amount of terrorists that are just walking around's basically to protect their asses (the FBI etc.), as well as to protect the people (supposedly...cuz as we've seen this past week, it didn't do it so well in London, did it?).

I just don't buy the whole 'give up human rights for protection' scam, cuz that's all it is. A scam. The respective governments are already being paid to provide protection for their citizens and aren't doing a very good job of it. Instead they're wasting tax dollars/pounds on rubbish that just makes it worse. I would like to see people stop making knee-jerk reactions to these things and start being PROACTIVE for a change.

7/24/2005 06:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

@rthother and sheldiz
"Wouldn't the random searches also benefit those demographics too? I mean, if a bomb is found through a random search, those people riding the subway will continue to live instead of dying in an attack."

Only if the random searches actually worked, which they won't. No suicide bomber actually planning on detonating a bomb in a subway will willingly try to smuggle the bomb through a security checkpoint if there are other ways of blowing themselves up in a large crowd. What mattered to the bombers was not the fact that they were in subway tubes, but that they were amongst a crowd of people who had no avenue of escape. There are many other ways to do that.

The random bag-searches are a stop-gap measure, nothing more. They will stop another subway bombing like placing armed guards around a bank already robbed of its money will stop the thieves who ran off with it. Meanwhile, what more civil rights are we willing to give up if we're willing to sacrifice not just our ability to take a subway to work in the morning without getting frisked, but deeper foundations of our democracy, such as "innocent until proven guilty" and "freedom from illegal searches without reasonable suspicion"?

And since these bag searches will do nothing to stop terrorism, it is nothing more than a targetted assault on the working class, inconveniencing them and (if what happened last week in London is any indication) possibly shooting them to make the upper-class feel safer.

7/25/2005 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Rtother said...

Oh, I agree that the bag checks are short-term band-aids, but they are band-aids nonetheless. I think Israel might be the best country to look at for the effectiveness of such measures, and Sri Lanka. I don't know all the details of success and failures though.

Anyhow, doesn't this still deter suicide bombers from attacking the subway? I mean, if I were a suicide bomber and I heard of successful subway attacks and a lack of response in protecting the subway, I'd probably go for the mass-transit attack. High density targets unprotected.

Something needs to be done. I don't know what exactly, but I don't want things to continue as they are.

7/25/2005 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

" if I were a suicide bomber and I heard of successful subway attacks and a lack of response in protecting the subway, I'd probably go for the mass-transit attack. High density targets unprotected. "

Sure, but, if I were a suicide bomber (which I'm not, for all you DHS officers listening in), and I had heard of a successful subway attack, and knew there were security checkpoints, I'd detonate my bomb at a security checkpoint. Convenient bottle neck and all that. The point being that, any suicide bomber who wants to blow up a bunch of people will find a way around it, and security checkpoints provide as nice a target for those planning on dying anyways as the attacks they are preventing.

7/25/2005 11:06:00 PM  

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