Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Security vs. Convenience

I try and keep this place relatively free of politicking and mostly free of seriousness, but I’ve been mad for a couple of days and somebody needs to say something. So bear with me. Manhattan Users Guide is a daily newsletter intended to keep us up to date on what is going on around here, but once in awhile they throw in some social commentary or something, presumably because they realize the wide audience that they can reach. A few days ago when the NYPD implemented random bag checks at subway stations in response to the London bombings, MUG ran an unfavorable op-ed about the searches. I wanted to comment then, but I’ve always heard that you should keep quiet for a day and see if you still feel as strongly about the subject before attacking it. Well, this morning I still feel as strongly about it and today the email from MUG was another piece focused on the reader’s responses to the first one. The second critique, rather than appealing to our intelligence as rational human beings, simply degrades into an emotional rampage, ruining any chance of being taken seriously. It’s neither informed nor rational. But I’ll let you read it for yourselves, all emphasis mine:

Fearful Times
July 27, 2005

I was going to run a different article for today’s MUG, but something happened last night that scared the hell out of me. And it was a reader who did it.

As it happened, I had just come from seeing "Primo," the extraordinary one-man show by Anthony Sher that lays out, in unembroidered language, what existence was like in Auschwitz for Primo Levi. One of the key tenets for survival at the camp, Levi learn early on, is don’t ask questions. He also comes to understand that if your intent is to dehumanize, this prohibition works well.

On Monday, in response to the newly instituted random subway searches, MUG questioned the efficacy of these searches as they are currently set up. It seemed to me that this deployment of resources is largely cosmetic (and terrorism experts I have heard interviewed have said essentially the same thing), designed to make riders feel better. That’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but the benefit of making people feel better now is outweighed, perhaps, by the unease it will have created when, despite this, a bomb goes off. If the searches are stopped, and there is a bombing, people will say that we should have had searches. But I’d still like to see a more rational approach to threats than knee-jerk reactions after an event.

I’d like to see things done that might reduce the threat or minimize the casualties in an attack. Specifically, fix the communication problems among the first responders, where virtually no progress has been made since 9-11. Improve underground communications, invest in more cameras, increase ease of egress, use bomb-sniffing dogs. Consider using in subway cars the special glass that breaks in such a way as to minimize injuries in a bombing. And the technology is there, the Israelis having developed it, to use bomb-sensor technology for passengers boarding buses.

The mail from Monday ran 79 against the searches and four in favor of them. Even if it had been the other way around, I see no harm in asking the question. One reader wrote, "You might have heard in the real press (see for polls) that the average New York subway rider sees the searches as positive (which should also make you uneasy about broadcasting your anti-search views to your NYC readership)."

That made me uneasy all right, but not for the reason the author of the email supposed. I was uneasy that the author would think that simply because, even if true, New Yorkers favor the searches, that that is a reason not to point out what seem to me flaws in the logic of those searches.

And then, after seeing "Primo," last night, I found this in my email, from D. Stein: "How dare you question the subway searches???!?!?! You sound completely ignorant and foolish."

I know I blanched, because I felt the blood instantly drain from my face. It’s not the second sentence – I’m ignorant and foolish on a daily basis. It was that a fellow New Yorker was so fearful that he was willing to fall into lock-step with authority and was shocked that someone else would not. Isn’t asking questions, as Primo Levi learned, one of the fundamental elements of freedom?

–Charlie Suisman

This article, to me, illustrates the difficulties of reporting that “the media” has recently had to begin defending. Blogging, if you ask many of the influential bloggers, was supposed to be the Deus ex Machina that remedied the pitfalls of MSM, but if you just use this article as a reference point, it’s pretty clear to me that blogging has not, and will not, become the fair and balanced news source that many would like it be.

I know that it’s about as obvious as a punch in the face, but just to make sure you caught it, the crux of this article is comparing every New Yorker in favor of subway searches to fascists. That is the point of this article. If you like bag searches you may as well have killed Jews. If you need any more commentary on that then may whatever supernatural force you have faith in have mercy on you.

The second blatant problem with this article is the complete disregard for opposing viewpoints. The theme of the piece is “with us or against us,” and in a city as diverse as New York this is a dangerous mindset. It seems to me that the problem is one of appearances. To those who lean left of the political spectrum, New York appears to be a liberal paradise. A dissenting opinion is rarely heard, and those in power begin to assume that it doesn’t exist. This not only makes conversations very boring, but it also leads to a deluge of one-sided commentary and a marginally voiced and oft attacked minority. To be sure, MUG does not advertise itself as a news outlet (nor do they fit that label), but that does not serve to qualm my unease at such a large outlet using it’s popularity to attack a minority who may believe that the security measures implemented could serve effective as, at the very least, a duct-tape deterrent to copycat bombings on our own soil.

To be fair, there is at least one good point raised in the editorial. The fact that there are no drug or bomb-sniffing dogs in the subway system should be a concern of everyone. Personally, I know nothing about the availability of these dogs, nor why this measure has not yet been assessed in other new sources. Beating up everyone who fucks up a little seems to be the pastime of both of our gloriously infamous newspapers, The New York Post and Daily News. The fact that neither of them has proposed dogs in the subway system is actually quite astounding, and I’m rather ashamed that I didn’t think of it first myself. That doesn’t change the fact that cameras and “bomb proof” subway cars are by no stretch of the imagination measures that we could enact in a quick manner. Raising these issues in an article focused on practices implemented in response to an attack days earlier seems like a red herring, to me. I’ll grant you that maybe some of these should have been examined earlier, but that’s a moot point, and they know it. Simply stated, the reason that Suisman brings up complicated and long-term measures is to create an offensive, not to bring up feasible alternatives to searches. The only, only feasible alternative to searches in the subway mentioned are dogs.

If I looked shocked this morning after checking my inbox, it wasn’t because someone disagrees with me. In fact, a lot of people disagree with me. The real reason my jaw dropped after reading this editorial was a complete lack of respect for anyone with an opposing viewpoint. Clips from two emails out of four defending the searches are cited in the piece. First of all, I find it doubtful that the author chose two representative sentences from the four emails. I try to be fair, so I hope that I’ve misjudged the author and all four emails were as full of the drivel what he copied into the editorial. Why else would you choose the sentence with five exclamation marks and two question marks? Well, you know as well as I do that you would choose to repeat that sentence because it makes your opponent look like a moron. At best, that was rude and uncalled for. At worst, the author is an insensitive ass, and mean and underhanded, to boot. Respect does not stop at party lines. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.

Lets sum up some stuff and be as clear as mud on this topic: I. Hate. Bag. Searches. When I flew to Raleigh for the first time (first time flying, not to North Carolina) the friendly folks of the FAA made sure that, in addition to my apprehension of flying, I was pissed as hell when I got on the plane, too. And did you know that they don’t serve liquor on the little shit prop planes that wobble when they take off? You should have cases of whiskey on hand for the takeoff. 95% of the cargo should be liquor. I took it out on my girlfriend and felt bad about it, but those fuckers took my lighter, too. They spent fifteen minutes fishing a pair of scissors from a nail-care package out of her purse. Fuck them. But if fifteen minutes of that saves a few lives, I guess you just have to suck it up and get the fuck over it. It doesn’t mean you can’t be mad about it. It just means that the good outweighs the bad. And your inconvenience is nothing compared to even one life. If bag searches deter one person from walking onto the E train at 8:15 when I’m on my way to work, and I’m alive to prove it, than that shit works. Attacking a practice with no statistics, references, historical studies etc is just plain misguided, especially when your only real objection to it is running around yelling “racial profiling” like a chicken with his head cut off. But if it does work, and it keeps some people who shouldn’t be down there out of the subways, it’ll be damn hard to prove. Hell, if it keeps one guy from stealing one iPod I’d be happy. But Suisman took the easy way out, and attacked a security measure that we will (most likely) never see work. And if it does work, he’ll never be able to thank the cops who saved our asses.


Anonymous farmfresh said...

you should have trimmed that post down and sent it into MUG.

i'm definitely not a new yorker, but i have to say police dogs in the subway don't seem like a good idea to me. you mentioned suisman using images from nazi germany to prove a point; well, here's another one to think about. what's the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine thousands of people being herded onto a train in the company of uniformed officers and german shepards? do you really want that on the front page of the Post?

plus, even dogs wouldn't be a failsafe. and that's still assuming potential terrorists would use a bomb (ie, tokyo subway 1995). so, without tons of money and very sophisticated security measures (including things like biometrics that hopefully a democratic state would be reluctant to impliment even in extreme circumstances) you're left with a mostly cosmetic solution to a statistically unlikely threat.

so which form would you rather your peace of mind (and that's really all it would be right now) take? cops with guns and dogs sniffing you as you get on the train, or random bag checks?

9:00 PM  
Blogger Ben Shepard said...

what's the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine thousands of people being herded onto a train in the company of uniformed officers and german shepards?

Hahaha. Good point.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Charlie Suisman said...

Hi Ben,
I wanted to comment on your reactions to the two articles in MUG.

You write: "the crux of this article is comparing every New Yorker in favor of subway searches to fascists. That is the point of this article. If you like bag searches you may as well have killed Jews."

Ben, I'd ask you to reread what I wrote, because this is emphatically not the case. I'm not even opposed to bag searches (I wouldn't get on a plane if there were no bag search).

I'm opposed to the bag searches as they are currently set up because they are so unlikely to be effective, to repeat as they are currently set up - -that is, no profiling, you can choose to leave etc. (By the way, I'm not saying I'm for profiling, it's a very difficult issue.) I am simply raising questions about deploying police and spending money on something that is not likely to produce results.

If you like bag searches you may as well have killed Jews??? This is completely mischaracterizing what I wrote. What spooked me was that a reader would write, 'how dare you question the searches' - that IS a terrifying mindset, one that had to be learned in the camps, which was the only connection. As for the letter itself, I quoted it in its entirety, all two sentences.

When I talked about kneejerk reactions, I was thinking of making everyone take off their shoes at the airport AFTER an attempt had been made. Same with the subways. If searches are a good idea, then they were a good idea three years ago. Where have they been?

My concern is about deploying resources wisely. You say that I only offer one solution to a terrorist attack. Here's what virtually every terrorism expert I've ever read or heard speak says: There are three ways and really only three ways, to prevent a terrorist attack. 1) Better intelligence 2) Better vigilance at our ports and borders 3) Getting to the roots of the problem.

The theme of the piece is not with us or against us, by any stretch. Please, if you feel so inclined, read the two articles again. For what it's worth I am absolutely open to opposing viewpoints. But it has to work both ways, and D. Stein apparently just wanted me to accept things and not ask questions. I may right or wrong about the searches; I am absolutely certain that asking questions is always the right thing to do.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Ben Shepard said...


First of all, you're right. I realized that I misinterpreted your metaphor a little bit the day after I wrote this, but I was too lazy to fix it. You didn't compare every person in favor of bag checks or a higher police presence to Nazis, you compared them to the interned. So I suppose that makes the NYPD the SS? I'm not sure, but I still think that you're taking advantage of a powerful image to describe something that doesn't deserve that stigma. I know it's a writer’s trick to get your point across, but the comparison, in this case can hardly be drawn. Can you argue that a comparison the holocaust is ever prudent? That’s a debate for another day…

My second largest problem with your article was it's one-sided nature. If what you reprinted in the article was all the opposition that you received, that truly saddens me. Maybe if I imagine that those who disagreed simply kept to themselves (like I had before you found me out!), it will comfort me.

Listen, we can say “what if” for eons and never accomplish anything. I’m not saying that the system(s) that we have in place are anywhere near perfect. In fact, most projects that the government touches turn into multi-billion dollar disasters. What I am saying is that the NYPD responded to the bombings in London in sensible manner. Yes, we need better planning to recognize and stop possible threats with as little impact on the average person as possible. We’ve seen this tactic before – gas in Tokyo in ‘95 and a bomb in Paris in ’96, but does that mean that we should have had someone checking everyone entering a subway station for the past ten years? I doubt that anyone would argue that. You say you don’t like the “knee jerk” reaction of the NYPD, but isn’t that what was called for the days following the incidents in London? I don’t believe that they were not trying to guard against the person who has been planning an attack for a year. They were trying to stop the guy who watches London on CNN and decides it looks like a good idea -- or, so it seems to me. Well, that and they were trying to ease people’s minds, which I don’t see anything wrong with, either, as it turns out.

I’ll wrap this up. Of course, your point that we should question the tactics of the government is on target. This case, however, is one in which they made the right decision. Question why our mayor is spending more money than ever and falsifying crime rate drops. Question whose pockets the president is in. Question why, in the most “liberal” parts of the country I can’t open a bar and allow people to smoke inside it. But, the only way that I can interpret it, your argument boils down to one of two possible scenarios: Either a) the NYPD and whoever implements these measures do not have our best interests in mind or b) there is no one smart working on our security. I find it hard to believe that either of those is true.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Suisman said...

Hi Ben,
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Just a couple of points:
I really didn't compare those who favor bag searches to the interned. It was to one specific mindset, which is the one from a reader saying don't ask questions. As I said, reasonable people can disagree about the efficacy of the searches, but being to afraid to speak up has historically led to...lots of bad stuff. That's the comparison, though as analogies go, it may be a bit heavy handed, I'll grant you. But then no one has ever accused me of having a light touch.

And I'm not sure your two scenarios are the only possible ones. I think NYPD et al certainly have our best interests in mind. I think plenty of smart people are working on security. But the third scenario is...not everything they try makes sense and there are plenty of things we have not done that badly need attention (cargo through ports, nuclear facilities with poor security, responder communications - you get the idea).

I don't think the searches are cynical but I think they are disingenous, just to give people the feeling that they're taking action. This is absolutely an arguable point, but I, for one, would rather them forego what can only be a pig in a poke system and see them working on real, substantive things (as detailed before) that would, if not prevent an attack, might lessen some of the casualties. Instead of bag searches, it would really really really make me feel good to see some guys from Verizon down on the platforms, installing relays (or whatever they're called) so that if someone does see something suspicious, you could at least reach 911.

Anyway, it's been a learning experience for me and I appreciate the discussion. Please feel free to email me at MUG with any other thoughts. I'd be interested to hear them.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Ben Shepard said...

Good talking to you. Maybe we'll run into each other some time.

9:27 PM  

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