The most disturbing imagery I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is not that of mangled subway cars and a bus’s roof peeled back, but imagery that is a direct result of the UK’s and America’s recent reactions to terrorism.
I’m referring to the image of tourists atop an open-air, double-decker bus in Times Square, arms raised in the air as heavily armed policemen level assault weapons at them from all sides, or the image of queues spreading out from the busiest subway stations in New York as commuters wait to have their bags rifled through at hastily constructed security checkpoints. But the most disturbing image of all was not visual, but only referred to in articles or by talking heads on the news, as we learned the other day that a London police officer pumped five bullets into the back of a prone suspect’s head aboard a subway car in front of shocked onlookers, only to find out after the fact the man was not a terrorist of any sort.
Different news agencies have been reporting lately of the increased vigilance being shown by anti-terrorism task forces all over the English speaking world, from London to New York, Seattle to Sydney, and there is a constant refrain to them all: “It happened in London, that proves it can happen here.” Yes, it does. It also proves how short memories are. In a darkly humorous, macabre way, it has taken the deaths of 52 commuters in London to reawaken our nation to the threat of terrorism that has already taken 3,000 lives in the past four years in this country.
Another thing the attacks in London, and our reactions afterwards proves, is just how difficult it is to maintain vigilance in the face of a threat. I recall that in the months (and the initial years, for that matter), following 9/11, National Guard members brandishing their M-4s and M-16s standing alongside city cops with gas masks strapped to their legs was a regular site in New York’s subways. Gradually, however, these fearsome guardian angels began to fade away. The guardsmen were needed elsewhere, the cops were costing the city and the state far too much in overtime, and there hadn’t been an attack in a while.
One of the constants we have faced since terrorism came to the forefront of our national psyche, is that distance breeds apathy. Whether it be distance in miles, time, or familiarity (as in the gigantic shrug we have given at the news of the Sharm el Sheik bombings, in contrast to the shock we registered at the deaths of our British friends), this distance has led the people of our country and in other western nations to diminish terrorism somewhat. In some ways, this is good. In our case, a people that remain on edge constantly over a threat that has taken roughly a thousandth of a percent of our nation’s population is a people that is consumed by an instinct of death. However, when we discount terrorism in this way, we tend to also ignore it, forgetting that another constant of terrorism is the endless planning and preparation that goes into attacks, and the patience shown by terrorists to wait for those moments when our concentration on their efforts is at its weakest.
The amount of body bags that a terrorist attack fills is not the most effective or most accurate way to measure its impact. Attacks reach their peak impact in the days, weeks, and months afterwards. Those untouched by smoke or shrapnel find their daily lives altered significantly by visible and sometimes intrusive security, changed routines, and a shared heightening of anxiety that becomes insidious among groups of people in close quarters. In this case, subways and buses have become especially thick with tension.
Inevitably, politicians begin to make public calls for more anti-terror money. More is eventually allocated, but then it is discovered that politics has struck yet again, and a large percentage of the money has gone to pork or has been diverted to areas that face nominally a zero threat.
Mayors, governors, and police chiefs stand in front of microphones and announce unilateral security changes that push the boundaries of the Constitution, while in response, some low-profile organization will find itself beamed through the television news attacking these new measures as rascist/not tough enough/unconstitutional/meaningless/what have you. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter, because new security that does not involve gigantic, concrete flower pots is bound to slowly disappear as the nation’s shell-shock recedes, the bodies are buried, and the terrorists go back to planning and waiting.
There is a common refrain these days, yet all too true. The more we change because of these attacks, the more we throw away what it is that makes us American, or British, or Spanish, Russian or Egyptian, the more we subjugate ourselves to the will of paranoia, the more we decide that frantically doing something, anything, to stop another attack is better than carefully considering methods of protection that actually work, the more bold and effective these attacks are going to become. I don’t know in what ways the various terrorists of the world want the nations they target to change. I doubt there is a precise consensus, but all of them can probably agree that rousing confusion and panic is a damn fine start.
It’s disappointing to see those responsible for our safety becoming slave to half-measure. It is also disappointing to see so many willingly give up their rights without cause to satisfy these half-measures. Mass transit is woefully under-protected, but creating security checkpoints to rival those found in airports will not stop terrorists from attacking these systems.
Personal experience has shown how meaningless the new searches are. Every day I ride the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I have seen none of the new checkpoints, because they are not in every station. The police have prioritized their locations to the most crowded stations, a mere handful. But in a mass transit system that has over a billion riders a year, crowded is a relative term. It is no more difficult to walk onto a train carrying a package for the vast majority of subway riders today than it was a week ago. All one has to do is walk into a station that has no security checkpoint. This is not the glaring security hole it would appear. I haven’t seen any checkpoints, but there has been a visible police presence in all the stations, and that is reassuring.
The very fact that most stations in New York do not have random bag searches tells me that even the authorities do not take the random searches seriously. They are nothing more than a stop-gap measure to reassure a skittish public. But rather than erecting such gilded fortifications that inevitably fade away, maybe one cop per station, twenty-four hours a day, is the best solution. That works out to about thirteen hundred cops in three shifts a day, not a lot, trained not just to stop crime, but also to maintain a watchful and visible eye over their territory, making it that much harder to carry out a successful attack. Terrorists attack our weakest points, but constant visibility makes any place one of our strongest points.
Half-measures are one thing, but overzealous enforcement is truly frightening. We have entered an age where citizens are forced to prove their innocence on a regular basis. Far too often, this proof is demanded down the barrel of a gun. We, as a society, must be exceedingly careful to make sure we don’t find ourselves living in police states, where we find our freedoms subjugated to the continued survival and power of the state. Living in a long-standing democracy, like we in the United States do, it is hard to picture what happens when the most cherished vestiges of freedom are wrenched away, and by no means are we close to even the least brutal standards of totalitarianism. But we, and other western societies, must be truly unique in history, in that the spectre of extremism is causing us to willingly give away our freedoms, considering it to be a worthy sacrifice for our safety. However, the sole reason there has been a stopping point prior to real subjugation is not because these sacrifices have borne fruit, but because there are voices that have risen in protest, from people who truly recognize that you cannot have freedom from fear without freedom.
Once the panic has passed, once life in targeted big cities has settled back into cherished routine, it is important that real security methods remain in place, half-measures are never seen again, and that our government has not decided it is far too difficult to continue to place trust in those within its borders, citizen and visitor alike. Our very way of life is more in danger from our reactions to terrorism than from terrorism itself. Staying who we are, combined with real prevention at home and abroad, is the only way we will weather this storm with our societies intact.