Random Bag Searches Coming To D.C. Metro System

Washington D.C.'s 34 year-old Metro system is about to become the latest stage for Security Theater.

After two arrests of men allegedly plotting terror attacks against the Washington D.C. Metro system, transit police are beginning random bag searches of passengers:

Metro anti-terrorism teams will immediately start random inspections of passengers’ bags and packages to try to protect the rail and bus system from attack, transit officials said Thursday.

Police using explosives-screening equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs will pull aside for inspection about every third person carrying a bag, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said. The searches might be conducted at one location at a time or at several places simultaneously. If people refuse, they will be barred from entering the rail station or boarding a bus with the item, Taborn said. The inspections will be conducted “indefinitely,” he said.

Taborn told Metro’s board of directors about the plan during a meeting Thursday. Metro had planned to implement random searches in 2008 during times of elevated threat levels but never conducted any.

Thursday’s announcement came six weeks after federal law enforcement authorities arrested Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn in an alleged plot to bomb Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia. Last week, authorities arrested Awais Younis, 25, of Arlington County on accusations that he made threats on his Facebook page to place pipe bombs aboard Metro rail cars, according to court documents.

However, Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said the inspections are not a response to any specific or heightened threat.

“It’s good to vary your security posture,” he said, noting that transit agencies in New York, New Jersey and Boston have successfully carried out random checks.

The inspections over the far-flung transit network, which has 86 rail stations and 12,000 bus stops, will be conducted by several dozen officers at most. Metro’s trains and buses carry more than 1.2 million passengers every weekday, and officials acknowledge the limitations of the plan.

Two things about this strike me.

First, this is quite obviously more security theater than actual security. Given the size of the Metro system and the relatively small size of the security team that will be conducting the searches, this plan clearly isn’t aimed at actually making the Metro system any safer, nor is the fact that the bag searches will be entirely random rather than directed at people who might be, say, acting suspiciously or who fit a certain profile. Much like TSA security at the airports, these searches seem designed more to make riders feel safer than actually making them safer, a fact which seems to be confirmed by the experience of other transit systems:

New York City authorities began random bag searches in the subway system in 2005 after mass transit bombings in London that killed 56 people, said Paul J. Browne, deputy commissioner of the New York police.

Browne said the searches are conducted by some of the 2,500 police officers assigned to the subway system.

“Backpacks and other luggage are checked for explosives using swabs similar to those used at airports,” he said in an e-mail.

“We periodically find illegal weapons and drugs, but we have not uncovered explosives as part of a terrorist plot,” Browne said. “That’s not to say the system hasn’t deterred an attack. We rarely know if police presence has deterred an attack. . . . The unpredictability of which stations and at what times inspections take place makes it harder for plotters to plan an attack.”

Secondly, its worth noting the initial reaction of Metro riders to this planned up-tick in security:

Sienna Reynaga, a 32-year-old writer from Reston, arrived at the West Falls Church Station with two bags of luggage after returning from Spain.

Reynaga said the inspections will be effective at one thing: slowing everyone down.

“I would have been mad today if somebody checked my bags,” she said, laughing, “because it’s cold.”

Falls Church resident Irv Morgan, 49, said the inspections violate the Constitution.

“I think it will create a sense of unease,” he said before boarding an Orange Line train from the West Falls Church Station to attend a Christmas party in the District.

Morgan, a longtime Metro rider, said the system was once efficient and reliable.

“Metro is none of those things these days,” he said, adding that the security inspections are “one more level of degradation of what Metro use to be.”


Metro Orange Line riders Lina Dajani, 25, and Kaydia Kentish, 26, said they would not mind the inspections.

“We do it at airports, so it shouldn’t be an issue doing it here,” Kentish said.

“If it’s on everyone, it’s kind of a security issue,” Dajani said. “I’d rather be safe.”

That last reaction is, I think, where most Metro riders will end up being after these procedures are implemented. Since 9/11 we’ve all grown accustomed to security procedures that, 11 years ago, most of us would have considered unreasonable intrusions on our liberty and privacy, all in the name of safety. That, I think, is the real measure of what terrorism does to a free society. It’s not the bombs or the airplanes that hurt us most, but the gradual intrusions into personal freedom that are implemented in response to those threats. Little by little, the freedom of movement we once knew is being chipped away and, in the event that we ever again face a mass terrorist attack with catastrophic loss, the stage will have been set for a ramp up in “security procedures” that will make America an unrecognizable shell of its former self.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. DC Loser says:

    Little by little, the freedom of movement we once knew is being chipped away and, in the even that we ever again face a mass terrorist attack with catastrophic loss, the stage will have been set for a ramp up in “security procedures” that will make America an unrecognizable shell of its former self.

    Wasn’t that one of AQ’s objectives?

  2. Sandra says:

    Is this JUST FOR the capital city, or will the “great unwashed mobs” in Denver, Omaha, Cleveland and Dallas have to put up with it too? What about Los Angeles’ or San Francisco? Seattle and Portland?

    I agree with DC Loser, the terrorists HAVE WON.

  3. Jay Tea says:

    God forbid that these screeners engage in any kind of profiling or any other forms of common sense.

    “Hey, Johnson! You left your quota sheet behind! You’re way behind on groping grannies and over on attractive blondes! Now get over there and frisk that nun!”


  4. Tano says:

    “Little by little, the freedom of movement we once knew is being chipped away…’

    Unless you are carrying a bomb, which I suspect you would not be inclined to do, how exactly is your freedom of movement being chipped away? Is there anyplace you could ever possibly want to go that you are now being forbidden to go?

  5. JKB says:

    Ah… Urban living. Dense, high rise, eco-friendly living crammed in with hundreds of people you’d rather not be around. But now new and improved with movement controlled by the heel of the boot of the state security apparatus. But on the upside, the college kids will have to leave their weed in the dorm.

  6. Trumwill says:

    If there’s one thing we want to discourage, it’s people riding the bus….

  7. An Interested Party says:

    re: JKB Friday, December 17, 2010 12:03

    Yes, indeed…it’s not like we have to worry about terrorists striking Mayberry or perhaps wherever you live…

  8. matt says:

    Tano : My ability to get to work on time? Many years ago I was pulled over by a cop because I was “avoiding him” in my car. The officer asked to search my car and I accepted since frankly I was in a hurry and didn’t want to deal with the drama of exercising my constitutional rights. At the time I was driving a 91 CRX which is a small two door sport hatchback with no backseat. So in the past the cops usually only took about 20-30 minutes at most to search my vehicle (never been convicted/charged with anything beyond one ticket for going 65 in a 55). This time the cop found a pack of rolling papers in my glove box and that started off a search/interrogation that lasted well over an hour.The cop and his partner didn’t care that in the state of Illinois I was legally allowed to possess rolling papers because they were convinced that the papers were proof I had pot or something hidden somewhere. So after interrogating and detaining me for well over an hour and half I was let go with a handshake… I went back to my car and found the entire interior destroyed with my carpet ripped up and all my switches flipped and the contents of all my storage spaces emptied on the seats. So according to you that was no big deal for me cause I didn’t have drugs so why am I so upset… Oh and I was late to my appointment by 2 hours…

  9. matt says:

    The kicker is later that year I was running new wires under my carpet for my stereo (I was installing an amp for a set of new components up front and another amp for the new 3 12s I had along with a 1 farad capacitor) and as such I had the seats and stuff pulled out. Well deep under the carpet I found a tiny one hitter that probably was lost by the former owner who was a pothead. I pitched the hitter and thanked my lucky stars the cop didn’t bring out a drug dog or found the hitter himself ugh…

  10. Drew says:

    Random bag searches, eh. I think its disgusting that ugly old women are being selected as such…….

  11. Tano says:

    “So according to you that was no big deal for me cause I didn’t have drugs so why am I so upset…”

    Do you enjoy conversing with yourself? Put words in my mouth, and then respond to them?

    My response to your story would be that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether bag searches in the DC metro are an appropriate means to secure the populace from the threat of terrorism.

    What you encountered is police actions of the type that are carried out everyday in this country. Whether they should be or not, is a separate question from what we are discussing here.

  12. JKB says:

    @Interested Party – Well you’d be surprised. The two nuclear plants and the handful of dams are pretty big targets. There is a lot to be said for many redundant and independent modes of transport when enemy action is likely. Not to mention, different paths and routes from place to place. In other words, sticking all your assets in a couple of tubes with limited ability to reroute is efficient but poor survivability and adaption.

    BTW, I was at my office just outside DC proper on 9/11 but not near the Pentagon. Found alternate transportation because no way was I going to travel underground by the two primary targets in the world while the country was under attack. And I did the “Pumping gas” just like everyone else during the sniper.

    Just so you know, you don’t have to enter the Metro to do real damage to the commuters. Just lucky the terrs aren’t all that innovative. Plus, most suicide bombers wear their bomb not carry it in their purse.

  13. matt says:

    It’s directly connected to the subject at hand. You asked why I would have an issue with a police officer searching my bags without suspicion so I provided you a real world first hand example of how an innocent search can turn into a nightmare despite no laws being broken. Your refusal to see the connection is not surprising due to your obvious authoritarian beliefs.

  14. matt says:

    If terrorists were actually interested in killing people they’d be bombing the lines created at airports by the new security procedures or any number of vulnerable areas with lots of people. Instead they choose to attack us in ways so that we respond by further eroding our civil rights and our economy. We’re doing almost all the work for the terrorists these days…

  15. The Q says:

    How about this as a compromise, you can search my bag for a bomb, bio weapons, haz materials, plutonium, etc. and if found immediately arrest me.

    However, if you find my kiddie porn, weed stash, and $45k in unmarked bills. you must let me go – no questions asked.

    I think this solves a lot of problems:

    1.) it may actually catch actual terrorists (and act as a possible deterrent) and increase public safety

    2.) will not undermine our ever shrinking rights to privacy and constitutional rights.

    Its kind of like when a criminal has a dead body in his cartrunk and the police catch him but do not have the proper search warrant or probable cause…ergo, he walks.

    Same here…lets make transit safe, but not become the USSR to do it.

    P.S. on the streets of Paris when I was a college freshman touring Europe for the first time, a gendarme came up to me on the avenue St. Michel, garbled something in French, then immediately went through my small backpack…just searching it for no reason.

    I remember thinking, ” that’s bull$hit, for no reason this cop just came up and searched my property, that could NEVER happen in my country.

    I thought that in 1979, sadly it may now be standard procedure soon in the good ole’ US of A.

  16. The Q says:


    When you think about it, why haven’t the terrorists rented a helicopter, buy a box of dynamite, then, like Wiley Coyote with a BIC lighter, just circle over any large metro downtown area for 3 minutes just lighting these sticks with the BIC then chucking them indiscriminately out the window?

    It seems they could do this everyday and create holy havoc, but yet NOTHING in 9 years.

    Or just get a bazooka, a convertible and park your car directly under the flightpath at LAX near the beach and bring down a 747 or two from 400 feet?

    When you think about it, doesn’t it seem odd that absolutely nothing like this has occurred since 911? Is it just that the terrorists are stupid or perhaps non existent?

  17. anjin-san says:

    > movement controlled by the heel of the boot of the state security apparatus.

    Which is exactly what the right demanded after 9/11. I still remember their brave battle cry “Oh God, Oh Please, do anything you want… just save me from Osama!”

  18. JKB says:

    “Which is exactly what the right demanded after 9/11.”

    Well, actually it was both sides. Seems the weak-willed and cowardly are not limited to one party or ideology. No freedom so precious not to cast aside at the first sign of trouble. Which is fine but they need to be labeled so they can be looked after like children while the adults operate in the free world.

    If people refuse, they will be barred from entering the rail station or boarding a bus with the item, Taborn said.

    Nice, no flying, no using public transportation without surrendering your constitutional rights. I know that makes me want to park my car and join the cattle on mass transit.

  19. anjin-san says:

    > Seems the weak-willed and cowardly are not limited to one party or ideology.

    This is true. But the GOP was the driver for Homeland Security policy, and the Democrats fell in line in a pretty cowardly fashion. The Iraq war is the most egregious example of the spinelessness they displayed.

  20. Benjamin says:

    The way I see it is pretty simple. The only deaths that have occurred on the metro happened last year and it was their fault. There is no need for these pointless bad searches. It is simply the government once again overstepping their bounds. This country was founded on the very principle of small government and people having the right to carry on from day to day without interference. Let’s also mention the fact that the metro doesn’t need to be wasting their money on this useless inspection. They have enough trouble with their finances already.