Therapeutic Searches


NPR's Day to Day just aired a soundbite from a Harvard expert who endorsed New York City's random subway searches on the grounds that policy should take into account and validate people's emotional anxiety. In other words, we need to conduct a bunch of random searches so people will feel safer, not because there's good reason to think it'll actually make them safer.

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  1. I await confirmation via a transcript that this statement was made as a justification for the searches, and not just to refute a feelings-based argument against them.

  2. What was that quote by Ben Franklin again?

  3. I don’t get why people like NPR so much. People are always singing its praises around here. It’s NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO. Governmental. What is there to trust or like about it as a reliable source of information?

  4. I’ve argued in other threads that searches will be ineffective because of:
    1) The low probability of being searched.
    2) Easy ways to get around them (e.g. refuse the search, leave, go somewhere out of public view and give the bomb to another guy, have him try to get by)
    3) Squeezing the balloon: Free and open cities will always have areas where large groups of people gather.
    4) Premature attacks: A suicide attacker can blow himself up when the cop approaches. Not his original plan, perhaps, but still deadly and disruptive.

    So I’m not sold on any security benefits from random searches.

    But if the searches make people feel better, why not put the real cops on the street chasing thieves, rapists, and murderers, and put shrinks in uniforms in charge of the searches?

  5. smacky-

    It’s all about the soothing tones of the speakers.


    Honestly, this is such a fundamentally stupid admission to the deliberate misuse of resources that I’d like to say I’m shocked, but, well, not really.

  6. Was that concussive thud I heard Jennifer’s head exploding?

  7. Smacky,

    People like NPR because it’s the least shitty thing on the radio. I find it horribly banal, especially that stupid radio show with the sound effects, “A Day in the Life of Whoever”.

  8. “NPR’s Day to Day just aired a soundbite from a Harvard expert who endorsed New York City’s random subway searches on the grounds that policy should take into account and validate people’s emotional anxiety.”

    Heh heh, A lot of people are waking up this morning to find out their echinacea doesn’t work. Where’s the policy to take their health anxieties into account?

    An informed populace is the best defense. Its almost like saying, if we don’t tell them the pilot has a bad heart condition, they’ll feel safe to fly.

  9. I find the vocal tones on NPR to be smug and vaguely condescending with a hint of lobotomy.

  10. Number 6-

    I’ve actually modified my civil-disobedience-through-pain-in-the-ass-searches plan. When I made that business trip last month I bought some of those plastic crush-proof containers of mini-cookies and other snacks, and since I’m a lousy housekeeper I still have many of the empty containers lying around. So instead of filling my purse with really gross garbage in Ziploc bags, I’ll jam it full of your basic clutter garbage. If the cop wants to actually make sure I’m free of weapons, we’re talking a ten-minute excavation.

    I’ll also see if he actually opens the canisters–useful info in case I ever become a smuggler.

  11. btw, I was searched getting on the train yesterday going to work. There were 4 or 5 police officers, one standing at a little table with the others crowded behind and to the side. They do not reach into your bag but use a stick about 18 inches long to push around the stuff in your bag, so putting gross stuff in Ziplocs won?t bother them too much.

  12. Sounds like the “search” at the Smithsonian museums in DC. I’ve asked a bunch of conservative-type people I know what they think about the subway searches, and almost everyone thinks that they’re ineffective, but important to “make people feel safe enough to go about their everyday lives.” No word from them yet as to whether or not guns should be confiscated to “make people feel safe enough to go about their everyday lives.”

  13. I’ve heard of people volunteering for random searches so they feel safer. If I were a terrorist I’d have some of my accomplices hang out near me (but not act as if they’re associating with me) and if a cop came near they’d distract him by volunteering for a search.

  14. Making people feel better is not a bad goal. I still say that the best thing that Reagan ever did for the country was maintain an incessant cheeriness in office–the public mood does matter.

    Having said that, these subway searches are indeed a waste of resources. If the city wants to put forth a reassuring gesture to make people feel less afraid to ride MTA, then I suggest that Mayor Bloomberg ride it every day.

    Or would that make it a more tempting target?

  15. Making people feel better is not a bad goal.

    All things being equal, sure, why not make people feel better.

    But all things aren’t equal, and these searches come at a cost.

  16. “Making people feel better is not a bad goal”

    Well, robbing other people of their money to make a person feel good IS a bad goal, so I’m still not sure I buy that government should be doing it.

    Further, I’m always a little wary of “leader worship” – If you rely on someone else to make you feel happy, secure, etc. – you’re giving that person an AWFUL lot of power over you. While in principal, there’s nothing wrong with you voluntarily doing so, I still don’t think it’s a healthy worldview, and therefore is NOT something I would ever encourage someone else to do.

  17. Let me clarify:

    Making people feel better is not a bad goal, but wasting money to do so is wicked.

    If the city could make us feel better for less than $100 a year, I’d say go for it.

    Maybe instead of these symbolic gestures, NYC should appoint a volunteer MTA cheerleader. I have nothing against inexpensive state-sponsored cheeleading.

  18. Making people feel better may be a worthy goal, but lying to them and even endangering them in order to bring it about is not. And New York is lying by implying that this will make anybody safer, and endangering our civil liberties (and if you want to stretch this far enough, endangering our very lives by making fools believe that something is perfectly safe when it is not and can never be).

  19. Before the random searches were people feeling so unsafe that they couldn’t go about their normal lives? Judging from the typical crush of people crammed onto my evening train back home even after the London bombings but before random searches, this was not the case.

    So who, exactly, needed to feel safer?

    It ws put forth that people who don’t want to agree to a search can find alternate modes of transportation (like going to another subway entrance). I’d say it’s be better if people who don’t feel safe without a search should be the ones finding alternate modes of transportation.


  20. thoreau – but going after thieves, murderers, and rapists (not to mention terrorists) takes real police work. And that’s hard. I mean, our boys in blue are sensitive, and they can’t be handed jobs that are too hard. It’s in the union contract or something. It’s way easier to stand around and search people’s shit. Plus, you might get lucky and find some dope in there, which 1) dopers are bad, and 2) dope funds terrorism.

    Really, this is getting totally fucking ridiculous.

  21. Touche, Jennifer!

    I was just thinking that, sometimes, a little fear can be a good thing. Cheerleading: good. Burying head in the sand: bad. Paying huge amounts of money for the sand: stupid.

  22. Being a Yale employee, it’s my expert opinion that Harvard is full of idiots.

  23. I’m with Lowdog. And I’m willing to bet that I get singled out for a lot of these searches. And no, it’s not because I’m this big scary dangerous-looking terrorist-type; quite the opposite, in fact. I’m a little fluffy-looking woman who is obviously no harm to anyone, which means some cowardly cop can mess with me secure in the knowledge that I won’t be adding to the cops-killed-in-the-line-of-duty statistics.

    A few years ago when I was living in a bad neighborhood I called 911 to report some guy getting beat up right beneath my window. No cops ever arrived. Only later did I realize that it was stupid of me to report a violent crime in action–I SHOULD have said that a harmless, unarmed skinny kid was smoking a joint. THAT would’ve brought those gun-toting donut-horking cowards on the run.

    Oink oink oink. (That’s in case Mona is reading this.)

  24. Lowdog

    Don’t be too hard on cops. For all their faults, most of them became cops because they sincerely want to catch bad guys. I’ll bet most of the ones stuck down in those steamy hot tunnels for hours on end (doing what has to be a dull job) are thinking about how ridiculous this is, too.

    Which is inherently dangerous, come to think of it. The last thing we need is a cop (with gun) who’s bored out of his mind, tired, frustrated, and about to pass out from heat stroke!

  25. JMoore – if it wasn’t for the drug war, cops would be some much more chill. So I don’t have a problem with cops from the get-go. I actually wanted to get into criminal justice (corporate security, primarily, FBI secondary) when I was younger. But there is just so much bullshit going on right now, I have a hard time giving them a pass. If they know it’s ridiculous, then why aren’t more cops organising themselves (they already have powerful unions) into protesting ineffective and stupid techniques?

  26. I was in Grand Central the other day, coming to work, and noticed the police search tables at the main entrance for the subway. But GCT has at least at least 5 different entrances I know of. Needless to say, they were only searching at the main entrance. So there’s that.

    The cops and DAs I have talked to are just hoping to get some drug collars out of it, but don’t think it will do anything to stop bombers.

  27. I already feel safe. Does that mean I can tell the officer, “No thanks – let me through, please”?

    I suggest that Mayor Bloomberg ride it every day

    He does, supposedly.

  28. Cops would also be more chill if the neighborhoods they patrolled were more pedestrian-oriented, and they were actually out among the public they served, getting to know them.

  29. joe – I agree. It’s because cops live in a vacuum. A scumbag vacuum. If all you ever encounter is scumbags, you assume everyone is a scumbag. Which, of couse, is not the case, considering that the huge majority of people are honest, mostly law-abiding folks. So if you allowed police to actually interact with ‘real’ people, and got rid of the bullshit drug prohibition, which breeds mistrust and paranoia among both populace and police, we’d all be much better off.

  30. Well, having preached yesterday about the superiority of random searches over targeted ones (‘profiling’) I’ll preach today about the total worthlessness of random subway searches–especially those that can so easily be avoided by choosing a different staircase. Somebody above pointed out that finding terrorists was just plain hard work, involving infiltration, listening etc. Not to mention actually having people who can read Arabic. Clearly our governments (city, state and federal) would rather engage in ‘Security Theater’–it’s cheaper, simpler, and makes people feel safer, even though they’re not.
    Cynical? Me?

  31. Seems to me that the best thing anyone could to to insure their own safety anywhere in public is to pay attention to their surroundings. If you see someone who looks suspicious to you, you can take action to keep yourself safe. I suspect that this technique is widely employed in places like Israel where bombings are more common, and I suspect that it saves a lot of lives.
    Random searches make people think that there is no need to pay attention, they are being cared for by the forces of law and order, and that they can relax to their newspaper, manga, or iPod.
    So, in effect, the illusion of safety actually increases the chances of people being hurt because they trust that they are someplace where they can let down their guard.

    Of course, maybe I’m just a personal responsibility nut.

  32. Hey Lowdog-

    The NYPD is made up of hero’s, not idiots. Think of yourself as getting a 50-point “safety inspection” by a hero and less of being hassled by some donut-eating, nanny cop. Now if this was in Chicago or LA, you have some beef then.

  33. Chrisd – I think most of us are personal responsibility nuts around here.

    s.a.m. – I live in Phoenix, so I don’t have to worry about it. Of course, I know you were being facetious.

  34. Phoenix – good example. How the hell is a cop supposed to walk around Phoenix?

  35. Joe-


  36. Lowdog-

    You read me like I am a Hustler Mag!


    By taking lots of breaks and drinking lots of water. That and maybe some sleeveless uniforms a la Village People.

  37. In the thread on FBI subpoenas, someone suggested we are sliding toward fascism. I think the security searches show we are really sliding toward Oz: all show, no substance.

    Come to think of it, isn’t that what most government actions seem to be?

    Let’s create welfare. There, poverty solved.

    Let’s pass No Child Left Behind. There, no more dumb kids.

    Let’s create the TSA. There, flying is safe.

    Yet, as soon as the data show that poverty persists, kids are still uneducated, and box knives still get on planes, there is little desire to change what was passed. It’s as if every act of government is assumed to be perfect and complete the first time out of the box. On the occasions when change is contemplated, it is more akin to Ptolemaic epicycles than Copernican revolution.

    Yup, we are ruled by Oz, not Mussolini. Maybe Oz with a mean streak.

  38. If they want to make people feel better, why not legalize pot?

  39. Angry Jeff–

    What, and admit they were wrong all this time?

  40. joe – I wasn’t using Phoenix as an example of anything…just saying I don’t have to worry about getting my shit searched when I get on the subway.

    In tempe, they actually have cops ride around on mountain bikes and there are mounted police as well. I like it, and the cops are fairly friendly.

  41. It’s called a roust. That’s where you can do anything but cause massive inconvenience, so that’s what you do, to prove you’re doing something.

  42. In the thread on FBI subpoenas, someone suggested we are sliding toward fascism. I think the security searches show we are really sliding toward Oz: all show, no substance.

    A friend of mine has a theory that we’re slipping into what he calls Starbucks Fascism: You pay too much for a mediocre product wrapped in lots of hype and good looking design.

  43. I was watching Brazil the other night (again) and thinking how much our society is coming to resemble the movie’s. Bombing campaigns, genial and sincere politicians assuring us that we’re winning the war, intrusive policing which doesn’t accomplish anything except killing the wrong person occasionally, lots of big expensive things that never work properly… I feel like I should start whistling Aquarela do Brasil as I go around the city.

  44. JD,

    Also, those giant government-sponsored Giant Samurai Robots have really been cramping my style.

  45. And don’t forget that it’s always Christmas!

  46. Hey, at least I have a real big monitor to read H&R with, and I don’t have to use some crappy Fresnel-lens setup.

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