Rethinking the transportation security complex

After 12 years it’s time for a serious discussion about safety (freedom from accidental harm) and security (freedom from intentional harm). Somehow we still spend every September 11 waxing poetic about precious life and freedoms while simultaneously using it to justify things like invading sovereign countries, spying on peace activists and marketing products. Perhaps most troublesome is that security theater has become a fact of life rather than the short-lived embarrassment it should have been.

We have created a culture of fear, in which we are irrationally taught to be afraid of nothing, and by extension, to fear the wrong things.  Although we know that the individual risk of being a terrorist victim is insignificant when compared to the risk of common events like a car crash or being shot by the police – of course I object to trivializing traffic crimes by referring to them as routine and thus acceptable – we continue to militarize our police and restrict access to public facilities and transportation services. As we slash budgets everywhere else, only the military industrial complex and security industrial complex keep expanding. The typical transit agency is reducing services due to budget cuts while it wastes money on security theater, usually from federal grants only permitted to be spent on security related items.

Our mobility has been restricted such that routine travel is now difficult, intimidating, expensive and time-consuming. Every time you inspect passengers’ personal property or delay trains for a half hour while you bring dogs to realize someone forgot their backpack, you disrupt everyone’s lives and strip away their independence. Encouraging people to use cars only theoretically improves security but definitely reduces safety.  Militarizing the police makes them less approachable so that citizens are less likely to seek help for common crimes such as property theft, assault or harassment, not exactly good for security. Don’t even think about flying anywhere: pure misery, especially if you’re black or brown.

None of this makes us any safer or more secure.  There is no evidence that putting cops on trains with machine guns, conducting random bag searches or begging people to report unattended bags or “suspicious activities” prevents crime.  The hard truth is that nothing we do is going to prevent terrorist attacks, unless of course we transform our foreign policy away from promoting violence and repression (but then we wouldn’t have cheap oil). All we are doing is funding the security industry, and while I’m all about jobs, I have a feeling driving a bus or building houses would be a better use of funds and people than buying weapons we need to find a use for.

So let’s put an end to this nonsense. If we really care about safety and security, we can do many things right now that actually save lives, like investing in health care, education, jobs, renewable energy, mass transit … although based on what every politician in saying you could be mistaken for thinking everything is just fine right now in America.

Jeremy Mendelson

About Jeremy Mendelson

Jeremy is a traveling geographer, transit planner, street designer, bike user and sustainable transportation advocate, originally from New York City and Boston. He has designed bus and rail networks for a wide range of transit agencies; toured dozens of cities and towns; and written extensively about transportation planning, social and environmental justice and equity. | Jeremy hosts the Critical Transit podcast focusing on sustainable transportation policy and practice. You can find him on the bus or driving a bicycle, inline skates, a pedicab or a truck filled with bikes. Or just follow him on Twitter @CriticalTransit.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking the transportation security complex

  1. Walker

    I strongly agree with you about our culture of fear, the security theatre we see around us, particularly the TSA and some police actions, and the militarization of our police. The militarization (and the move towards hiring only Type-A’s) has come primarily from law enforcement’s failed attempt at controlling illicit drug sales (our whole failed prohibition of personal vice is what would be part III of ‘A Wink And A Nod’ that I posted Tuesday). And, all of this is heightened by sensationalized media (people are afraid for their kids to ride a bike to the store because they might be kidnapped, yet kidnapping is actually down from historical levels, though you wouldn’t know that from sensationalized news stories).

    I disagree with most of your second to last paragraph though. The terrorism we’re seeing today is ideology based, not anything in response to our foreign policy. Unless perhaps our foreign policy should be to lay down and be lap dogs. When the guy started shooting at Fort Hood, should others not have shot back at him to stop him from continuing to kill people? Sadly, the only way to meet some evil forces is with force of our own.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

      I’m with you on all that. The ideology that makes people hate the US is driven by opposition to our policy of invading and occupying sovereign country and propping up tyrannical regimes all over world in the interest of securing oil and military bases. It’s not like they just hate our government model or secular society (although some do but that alone isn’t enough to make them violent). Crimes should certainly be stopped; an incident like the Fort Hood shooting isn’t going to be prevented by restricting access and militarizing our cities, but maybe better education and social support services would make some difference.

  2. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    You know what are dangers to America? Type 2 Diabetes and social isolation. Other than maybe a deteriorating gas main exploding, I’m not too worried about being blown up.

  3. Ben Ross

    Transit in Washington has another problem of security theater – the exclusion from large government compounds of buses and pedestrians. Buses that formerly went through the National Institutes of Health have been forced into circuitous reroutings, and there is no good pedestrian access to the Census Bureau from the Suitland Metro station. On the other hand, there have been only minor and fairly reasonable relocations at the Pentagon, which has a very busy an underground rail station and is the terminus for many important bus routes.

    It’s a good thing the Pentagon doesn’t contain any military targets like the Census Bureau and NIH.

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