‘Security Theater’: Is Amtrak Too Wide-Open?

Seoul Staion. Photo by dnc.

Seoul Staion. Photo by d'n'c.

SEOUL — LAST YEAR, AS I WEIGHED whether to commit to a 42-hour train ride from Seattle to Wisconsin, one chief factor helped me ultimately decide to see the northern part of the country by rail: “At least I won’t have to mess with security.” But a recent contingency exercise carried out at Amtrak stations along the eastern seaboard raises questions about how long passengers will be able to rely on that reasoning:

Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration deployed officers from about 100 local police departments to 150 train stations in 13 states and the District of Columbia during the morning rush on Tuesday in a drill to familiarize law enforcement personnel with the rail system and to practice working together. An Amtrak spokesman said some travelers were asked for identification and some were told to open their bags for inspection. […]

Participants drilled on a variety of tasks, [TSA spokesman Christopher White] said, including looking for bombs near the periphery of train stations, where crowds might flee after an explosion within the station. Attacks on mass transit in Madrid and London involved bombs that exploded more or less simultaneously, not sequentially, but, Mr. White said, “We need to prepare for scenarios we haven’t seen in the past.”

The drill perhaps has some valid goals. Everyone gripes about getting stuck in the security line, but when things go wrong the citizenry is quick to point at holes and ask why didn’t somebody do something? Yet the exercise also raises questions about civil liberties, and whether such a show of force demonstrates any real ability to address legitimate threats. The ACLU’s technology and liberty program director asked rhetorically in the NYT article excerpted above whether “this isn’t just security theater.”

A journey from Seoul Station to Busan puts passengers through nary a security measure; conductors hardly check tickets. There hasn’t been an attack here in recent memory. I imagine the Eurail system to be a bit tighter, especially following London and Madrid, though I’ve no direct experience (comments are welcome). Either way, I can’t imagine seeing the same kind elaborate drill being carried out in any of the nations around the globe where train travel is a primary mode of transit — it feels vaguely Orwellian, and at the same time inadequate.

This may be too idyllic a dream, but it seems to me that instead of rehearsing iron-fisted tactics, Amtrak and the TSA would to better to put in place a light network of well-trained, courteous, regular-duty personnel who can maintain order should something get out of hand — whether it’s a rowdy drunk on the train or something a bit more serious. Checking bags or IDs isn’t necessary as such measures are largely useless anyway. We do what we can to keep ourselves safe, but after that we just have to roll.

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