Subway Madness

Steven Wishnia Aug 10, 2005


“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The city of New York has replaced those quaint 18th-century sentiments with variations on “Passengers are advised that effective July 22, 2005, all backpacks and large containers are subject to random search by police,” handwritten on dry-erase boards in subway token booths.

This is an example of how people get so bowel-droppingly panicky when they hear the word “terrorism” that they’ll accept anything, no matter how stupid, useless, or fascistic, if it’s billed as a weapon in the “war on terror.” The city police won’t tell how many people they’ve searched, but the New York Civil Liberties Union says it’s been “thousands.”

OK, so there were suicide bombings in London, and the New York subways are vulnerable. That doesn’t mean we have to go along with every stupid, useless, fascistic measure the government dreams up. And this is a stupid, useless, and fascistic measure.

It comes from a city government that has been closing token booths and running trains without conductors, eliminating the jobs where workers are most likely to notice when something feels wrong. It comes from a city government that hasn’t bothered to teach subway workers how to look for the signs of a possible suicide bomber – their union had to hire an instructor itself. (City police officers are routinely trained to recognize the body language of people carrying guns.) It comes from a mayor and police commissioner whose policies on political protests show they have absolutely no respect for the Bill of Rights. And it comes in a country whose president ignored warnings that screamed “Bin Laden Determined to Strike at US” – possibly with hijacked planes as a weapon – and once we were attacked, he “fought back” by invading Iraq.

Who really thinks that having police rifle through the lipstick, cigarettes, schoolbooks, iPods, and tampons of randomly selected straphangers is going to prevent a suicide bombing in the subway? Even Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concedes that the policy is about “perception.” If the medicine tastes bad it must be effective, right?

This policy’s biggest effect – quite possibly intentional – will be to get people used to being searched, to give up their fundamental rights under the illusion that they’re preventing another attack. If you don’t have anything to hide, it shouldn’t bother you, right? And if you object to opening your bag without probable cause, you’re a selfish traitor who’d rather see people get blown up than give away your precious little “rights.”

As it would be impossible to search everyone going into the subway, suspects can be chosen either at random – that is, purely for show – or by racial profiling. Two local politicians, City Councilmember James Oddo of Staten Island and Assemblymember Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, have urged the city to adopt profiling. That would make anyone who’s remotely olive-skinned or darker a suspect. And just as drug-war profiling assumes that a black 20-year-old driving home from college in Virginia on the New Jersey Turnpike while booming Mos Def’s latest jam on the car stereo must be a crack dealer, racial profiling for “terrorists” is far more likely to snare a full-bearded Bangladeshi newsdealer than a suicide bomber.

The “war on terror” already has its Amadou Diallo: Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by police in London July 22. At first, British police said he was “directly linked” to the investigation of the bombing. That meant his neighbors were under suspicion. It turned out that de Menezes was guilty of nothing beyond wearing a denim jacket and fleeing when accosted by plainclothes cops, probably because he had an expired visa. But he’s acceptable collateral damage, because “we can’t take chances.”

This mentality also applies to Americans’ failure to get outraged about torture in Iraq and Guantanamo. It’s been dismissed with the specious logic of “well, if you had somebody who knew there was a bomb about to go off, wouldn’t it be OK to smack them around a bit until they revealed it?” Even in Israel they can’t come up with any definite examples of that ever working. Does shoving electrodes up the asses of Muslim prisoners and putting lit cigarettes out in their ears help catch suicide bombers? Or does it just indulge prison guards’ lust for sadism, the Bush administration’s wanking-in-the-mirror fetish of its “toughness,” and the American public’s hunger for vicarious revenge? If you use any common sense, you see that torture works best to create broken-spirited people blinded and possessed by rage – the perfect way to breed MORE suicide bombers.

We’ve also got politicians like Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who on July 15 speculated that if Islamic fundamentalists attacked the United States with a nuclear device, we could “take out” Mecca in retaliation. You may not have heard about it, but it outraged the Muslim world from Detroit to Dhaka – while far-right bloggers praised Tancredo for being courageously “un-PC.”

Without getting into the moronic 9/11 conspiracy theories, suicide bombings and the dragged-out Iraq war help the Bush administration politically, because they keep Americans in a state of fear and hate, scared to question anything because “they attacked us.” As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the mentality appropriate to a state of war” is necessary to create the emotional basis for an oppressive, hierarchical society – in which the ideal citizen “should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph… Since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter if the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.”

They hate us because they hate our freedom. Anyone who cares about freedom should refuse to be searched in the subway.

Photo by: Alan Carroll

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