Why Not Accept Random Searches?


In comments, Izar asks why we feel that having policemen check up on us is an affront to our liberty. He also asks that we call him a “serf of the totalitarian state machine,” so I shall.

I suppose I might feel differently if, regularly, people around me were being murdered by terrorists. But the happy truth is that both attempted and successful terrorism are incredibly rare events in the United States. I am far more likely to be killed by an idiot yacking on his cell phone while changing lanes than I am to be killed by a bomb. Given the ease of access to guns, explosives and the like, this is probably due to effective action by police and intelligence agencies. I do wonder where the court cases are. Further, the effectiveness of random, limited bag searches is highly questionable.

My concerns center around the cost of surveillance. I mean more than the fiscal costs–also spiritual and societal.

The fiscal costs of checking bags everywhere is huge. In Israel, it makes sense because of the imminent threat, and also because if you don’t check bags, people will feel insecure (scared) and shop elsewhere. So if we’re not voting substantially more money to the police, I’d prefer to see them enforcing traffic laws over checking bags. Also, the rarity of bombings in the US will drive the checkers to look for other things (drugs, evolution textbooks, pictures of Mohammed Atta being carried by a professor doing research into terrorism.) They’ll find things to find to make themselves feel useful.

This isn’t intended as a slam against those doing the job. Dedicated people hate feeling useless, and so they’ll look for things, other than bombs, to find, so that at the end of the year, they will not have found nothing. As I understand things, had you searched every single bag of every rider of every metro system in the United States last year, you would have found exactly no bombs. It’s very hard to do a job like that.

The spiritual and societal costs come when people are being watched constantly. Rather than doing things that people expect will make them happy, people will filter and color their decisions based on what a cop might think. To resist social pressure in making decisions is very difficult. To resist that pressure when it is literally embodied in an armed officer of the state is even harder. When those officers are trained to exploit the natural obedience to authority that Milgram demonstrated, it is even harder.

And so, the intrusive presence of the police creates an aggressive pressure to confirm. To not do certain things. What things? I don’t know. I suspect that Steve Mann is having lots of problems today. Enough to discourage anyone else from exploring that space. But what I do know is that all ideas are born new. They are experimented with, and explored. A prime value of liberty is that free societies invent and create more new faster than centrally planned or controlled societies. That’s been a strength. And no, police checking bags will not, by itself, change that. But liberty is easy to erode, and hard to rebuild.

So can I say what the cost of searching a bag will be? Yes. It will be some clever inventor who can’t bring his invention to a critical meeting because he’s stopped and searched by the police. We’ll never know what that invention is, because bad luck has prevented us from seeing it. Maybe its a new bomb detector. A way to clean up pollution. A cure for cancer. The pages of the great American novel scattered accidentally to the winds.

All to prevent the zero metro bombings that occurred last year in the United States. Of course, no one had ever crashed an airplane into a building before, either. But the actions that we take must be consummate with the risks, effective, and cost-effective.

PS to Izar: is a Totalitarian State Machine like a finite state machine, only without any decision points?

6 thoughts on “Why Not Accept Random Searches?

  1. First of all, thanks for taking the time to answer my question. As always, your opinion on these matters give me stuff to think about.
    I think I understand what you meant to say, but I cannot totally agree. Of course, giving up one liberty in the form of random search in a specific situation in a specific place is one step towards eroding freedom as a value. I agree to that. I can see the spiritual and societal hit when people are watched constantly. But from “a specific situation in a specific place” to “constantly” it doesn’t progress so fast in my mind, that’s what I don’t think I really understand. How from a preventive measure that, really, is there as much to calm the regular citizen (“See?The police are doing what they can!They’re trying!”) as anything, we get to a Big Brother society. Yes, there is the salami theory, a slice here and then a slice more, but where is the break between what is actually advisable or necessary or just plain doable and the total assault on our liberty and freedom? Where is the individual willing to sacrifice some freedom in order to improve the collective ?
    I can’t but question your argument that since the number of train bombings in the last year was zero, then it is not cost-effective to use that specific measure to try and protect them (if I understand you correctly). Before the 70s, no airline hijacks. During the 70s, you went into a plane and you got a little dictionary of the most popular sentences in Cuba and Algeria. Terrorism seems to have this “fad” thing, where one thing that’s shown to work keeps being tried until the next thing comes by.
    You point that “had you searched every single bag of every rider of every metro system in the United States last year, you would have found exactly no bombs”. Perhaps there was a dry run and a potential terrorist got scared seeing some police presence in the subway? And now, a heavier police presence and searches could cause the potential terrorist to revise their plans? Since Tokyo and then London,subways are targets. After Tokyo I’d have agreed with you.Aum Shinrikyo wasn’t just going to try and do the same with NYC. But after London ?
    I’ve heard security people talk about their jobs. The consensus seemed to be that a good day was one when nothing happened. A great day was when something was actually prevented. There were some amazing days when things were very succesful, and of those we will never hear details. That, in my opinion, is most unfortunate, because from a marketing perspective, if you don’t advertise your successes, you don’t get funding/support. But for these people, the fact that a day follows another and people can go to work and back home and have fun in the weekend means a job well done.
    So, perhaps they can’t prevent the attack that didn’t happen last year, but personally I believe that smart use of resources like searches can prevent the one that might be any day now.
    I would agree with the costs and limits you mention, if we were talking about police (pa)trolling the streets and stopping and searching people “just because”, at any time and place, with no regards for their rights. But if limits and boundaries can be imposed on the search… I don’t know. How is this different from airport x-ray machines ?
    Come to think of it, what happens in Israel if you go into a shopping center and they find drugs in your bag ? I have no idea. Most of the checking is done by civilian security companies, and they’d have no authority to do anything, I _think_. Even most government places I remember going into had civilians doing the checking. Does that make the intrusion any better in some sense ?
    p.s – A Totalitarian State Machine is a finite state machine that doesn’t change states, in fact you will be taken out and shot if you dare to speak about changing states or changing anything about the State 😉

  2. Thanks, Zooko, I just realized that I’d forgotten to fix that. (I couldn’t recall if it was Steve or Dave, because I’ve worked with a Dave Mann.)

  3. But from “a specific situation in a specific place” to “constantly” it doesn’t progress so fast in my mind, that’s what I don’t think I really understand.
    Look to London. Cameras are everywhere. There are very few public places where one isn’t watched. Add “random” searches as transport hubs, things like EZ pass here in the States (don’t know if they use something similar in London or not), and you have a surveillance platform the Stasi would have drooled over.
    And now, a heavier police presence and searches could cause the potential terrorist to revise their plans?
    I don’t see why they would; the chances of being caught are near zero, and in any case we (I live in Brooklyn) are free to walk away without being searched, so the cost is zero. Why would this effect a terrorist plot?
    But, Arguendo, let’s grant that it did increase the costs of bombing the subway. Were I a bomber (what bombs at midnight?), I’d hit somewhere else. Now, the random search proponents are tasked with implementing the searchs everywhere, or at least every high value target, for values of ‘high’ that determined bombers could chase down arbitrarily low. This is far, far worse than pushing on a waterbed – now you’ve given the attackers the ability to direct law enforcement efforts away from other activities to violating the 4th amendment.
    Of course, I don’t think it would go that far, but it does illustrate the sillyness of the whole thing.
    So, perhaps they can’t prevent the attack that didn’t happen last year, but personally I believe that smart use of resources like searches can prevent the one that might be any day now.
    That’s just it, though: the NY searches aren’t a smart use of resources. As Bruce says, it is pure security theater: searchers spend time reducing the chance of someone slipping in to the subway with a bomb by a very, very small amount, there’s no repercussion for trying it, and it wastes the time of the people being searched and violates the spirit, even if not the letter, of the 4th amendment. Where’s the win?
    I don’t know. How is this different from airport x-ray machines ?
    – It is orders of magnitude less effective (and airport measures are pretty bad, too).
    – It intrudes far more on the daily, quotidian life of everyone, and trains the citizens to behave like sheep
    – The MTA is state owned, rather than privately owned like airlines and most airports (although I admit this is becoming a distinction without a difference), triggering different legal issues
    – It diverts LEA resources from things they could be doing that have the possibility of actually reducing risk.
    I like the idea of a totalitarian state machine, evn if most of us call that a “brick”…

  4. Here is why it is a bad thing:
    It won’t work. It is intrusive.
    So if you really want to sooth people’s feelings, perhaps you could do it by choosing something that works and isn’t intrusive.
    To say “well, it might make people feel better and it isn’t really all that much liberty” is to miss the point of liberty in the American system. Liberties are not granted to citizens, they pre-exist governement and therefore any governmental intrusion *must be justified*.
    Ineffective sops are not justification.
    I think Ben Franklin said it best:
    “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither”

  5. Random Subway Searches in NYC

    Bill West on The Counterterrorism Blog explains why random subway searches are a bad idea, if not downright stupid.The likes of me, a 29-year law enforcement veteran who spent half his career working organized crime and national security cases, has fou…

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