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.