Civil Liberties

Pansies of New York

Bend over for feel-good policing.

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It's been a long time since New York City, home of the Bronx Cheer, the one-finger salute, and at least one headless body in a topless bar, was the world capital of feisty, in-your-face attitude. But who could have predicted that 21st-century New Yorkers would set the national standard for sheepish servility?

On the first day of random searches in New York's subway, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reported, "We actually had people who came over and volunteered to have their bags checked." The New York Times located one such individual, 35-year-old Eve Holbrook, at a station in Brooklyn. Having a police officer paw through her possessions "gives me a sense of comfort," she said. "I went up there of my own free will."

What was Holbrook's motivation? Did she think she might have accidentally slipped a bomb into her briefcase that morning? But if letting police look in her bag comforts her, maybe we shouldn't question it.

That seems to be the general attitude toward New York's new search policy, which has been copied in New Jersey and may be imitated in Washington, Boston, and San Francisco: It's hard to see how it will prevent a terrorist attack, but it makes people feel safer.

New York's subway system provides nearly 5 million rides on the average weekday. The city did not release precise figures, but the Times reports police search "thousands" of bags a day. Even allowing for the fact that not every rider carries a bag, the chance that any given bag will be selected for a search is minuscule.

In the unlikely event that a terrorist with a bomb is picked for a search, he can simply say no and exit the system with no questions asked. (It has to be that way so the city can argue in court that the searches are voluntary.) Upon leaving the subway, he can try again at another station, pass his bag to an accomplice, or detonate his bomb at a crowded location above ground.

The level of thinking required to support such a laughably inadequate security measure was illustrated by a New York Times editorial calling for "continuing and widespread" searches. According to the Times, police "will naturally choose to search the bags of those people who appear suspicious, like those wearing bulky clothes in warm weather." So if the police see someone they think is wearing explosives under his clothing, they're going to look in his bag?

Commissioner Kelly likewise seemed not to have fully come to grips with the possibility of a terrorist who does not keep his bomb in his backpack next to his lunch. "Ideally," he told the Times, "people wouldn't carry any backpacks or bulky packages on the transit system." But even a bag-free subway would be vulnerable to terrorists with explosives strapped to their bodies. Ideally, people wouldn't wear any clothing on the transit system.

Compared to those ideas, it may seem a small thing to open your purse for what will probably be a cursory exam by a bored cop. And that is precisely the problem: We are getting used to the idea that suspicionless searches of our personal belongings are no big deal–so insignificant, in fact, that the lamest justification will suffice.

"I see it also as giving some comfort to the riding public," said Kelly, and other proponents add that reassuring citizens is itself a valuable goal. But if any measure that is ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorism is justified simply because some people believe it will prevent terrorism, we might as well forget about our constitutional rights and start lining up behind Eve Holbrook, preferably naked. Big Apple residents, who once took pride in their assertiveness, seem ready to do just that.