On March 29th the Moscow subway system fell victim to a series of suicide bomber terrorist attacks.  Two female bombers detonated bombs that killed 40 people and wounded another 80 at rush hour that morning.  The attack has raised questions about how safe our American subways are what we need to do to increase security on them.  Subways and buses (and major transportation infrastructure like bridges and tunnels) are of course convenient targets for terrorist attacks for the same reason that planes have been for so long.  Transportation sources have been targets because large numbers of people congregate on them, making them unfortunately efficient for maximal impact.  Moreover, transit is so essential to our consciousness and daily activity, yet something also small, that attacking it jars our very sense of security to the core because nothing feels safe when our means of movement is denied or destroyed.

However, it is notable that American subways have not been subject to a major attack, differentiating the U.S. from Spain, London, and Moscow.  I do not think it has anything to do with our security measures in subways though.  If a bomber wanted to access any American subway system all she would need is a fare.  As long as we do and should prioritize speed and convenience of travel our public transportation systems will be incredibly permeable to attack.   It is simply impractical to put people through any sort of rigorous security screening before entering a subway train.  Moreover, to limit what people can bring on the subway is plain stupid as people rely on subways and buses in cities as residents in suburbs rely on cars.

What will keep us safe is reasonable police presence in our subway systems such that passengers feel safe and that perpetrators feel a reasonable chance of arousing suspicions of authorities.  However, the only true way to keep passengers safe is the same system that applies to preventing any sort of terrorism, quality intelligence services and smart police working in concert.  Fred Kaplan of Slate put it well when quoting Richard Clarke, the former White House Counterterrorism Chief:

Clarke has a few theories on why there haven’t been any suicide bombings here lately. “After 9/11,” he said, “all the security sweeps and the detentions left al-Qaida with the perception that it was very difficult to operate in the U.S.—more difficult than it actually was. Meanwhile, they found it was a lot easier to go after Americans in Iraq. They stopped going after the foreign enemy in the ‘far abroad.’ We came to them, so they went after us over there.”

That is not reassuring.  Is it possible that the moment we leave Iraq and Afghanistan we will be susceptible to greater domestic attacks?  Perhaps.  Maybe at the same time without a military presence in the Middle East an attack will be less likely.  This is all besides the point though.  There is no perfect way to protect from a terrorist attack, especially on our mass transportation systems.  We should concern ourselves with petty theft and assault and the day-to-day crimes and leave the concerns over national security to those who make that their full-time job.

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