This commentary appeared in Mercury News on May 3, 2004.
Madrid-Like Bombing Possible in U.S. Unless We Take Precautions
After the March 11 terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid that
claimed nearly 200 lives, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued
a bulletin highlighting uncorroborated intelligence reports about a plot
by terrorists to target subways, trains and buses in major American cities
Tragically, killings on public transportation vehicles are nothing new.
Only the month before the Madrid bombings, a terrorist bomb killed 39
and injured more than 100 on Moscow's Metro. In 2001, Singapore authorities
discovered a terrorist plot to bomb various sites including the city's
subways. We know now as a result of an arrest in 2001 that jihadists in
Europe planned to detonate a bomb at Milan's central rail station.
Could such an attack happen in the United States? Of course it could,
and it nearly did in 1997 when Islamic extremists planned to carry out
suicide bombings on New York City's subways. A lucky tip enabled police
to foil the plot.
Trains, subways and buses are ideal targets. They offer terrorists easy
access and escape. Congregations of strangers guarantee anonymity.
Surface transportation cannot be protected in the same way we protect
commercial aviation. It now requires nearly 60,000 screeners to check
2 million airline passengers daily. An equivalent nationwide screening
system for the approximately 26 million passengers traveling on trains,
subways and buses on an average day would require roughly 780,000 screeners
and cost tens of billions of dollars.
But trains, subways and buses must remain readily accessible, convenient
and inexpensive. The deployment of metal detectors, X-ray machines, explosive
sniffers, and armed guards -- which have become features of the landscape
at airports -- cannot be transferred easily to subway stations or bus
stops. The delays would be enormous and the costs prohibitive, effectively
shutting down public transportation systems.
This doesn't mean that nothing can be done to improve surface transportation
security. Security officials in countries that have been subjected to
terrorist attacks have developed some effective security countermeasures.
Good security can make terrorist attacks more difficult, increase their
likelihood of being detected, minimize casualties and disruption, reduce
panic and reassure alarmed passengers.
Actions that can be taken without paralyzing surface transportation include:
While all of these are good ideas, there is no single solution when it
comes to their implementation. Every community needs to create a system
that meets its own needs but is still affordable and practical.
BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS is the director of the National Transportation
Security Center for the Mineta Transportation Institute and senior adviser
to the president of the RAND Corp. He wrote this for the Mercury
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