Talking points against the random bag searches

There will be a WMATA/Metro Riders Advisory Council (RAC) meeting on Monday, January 3rd (6:30 pm at WMATA HQ – 600 5th Street, NW).  There will be a public comment time during which we can give reasons to oppose the plan.

Overall, the questions each opponent of the policy faces are: do we hope to rescind a bad policy, or do we want to improve or mitigate a bad policy?  Do we argue from general premises about the kind of society we want and the rights we want preserved, or from pragmatic, specific ones about Metro ridership or resource allocation?  Your answer will determine which items you stress: “unconstitutional” is a “rescind” argument, “overly broad, ineffectively overseen” is a specific “improve” or “mitigate” argument.  “Lowers ridership” is pragmatic, “fosters atmosphere of distrust” speaks more to the kind of society we prefer.

But the line between the two kinds of arguments is not always clear.  In some ways, pragmatic arguments become moral ones — if the case for the policy is this weak, what does that say about us as a society?  All kinds of general and specific arguments against the policy are valid and have their place — in fact, we may want to see a mix of them, so the Riders Advisory Council hears a broad spectrum of arguments as they debate the matter.  Here are a few, drawn from comments by Pat Elder, myself, and others, and reorganized a bit from earlier discussions.

  • Bag searches are ineffective. As designed, the process is pure security theater:
    • 1) “may I search your bag?” — “No” — “OK, you can’t take your bag onto Metro with you” — “OK, bye”.
    • 2) [30 minutes later, at the same station or a different one: same guy gets on to Metro.]
      So at significant cost, we are achieving nothing other than 1) accustoming ourselves to okaying having our bags swabbed and searched, 2) driving down Metro ridership.
  • Bag searches are unnecessary.  The decision to implement the process was taken despite the admission that there is “no specific or credible threat to the system.”  (WMATA “Talking points”/”Q&A” item: “Why now?  — While there is no specific or credible threat to the system at this time, this program is part of our changing security posture.”)   Thus, WMATA and their police department mainly want to be able to assert the authority to carry out these screenings —  they’re not even trying to assert a need  for it.
  • Bag searches waste resources. Anything that costs money, but is ineffective and unnecessary is by definition a waste of resources.  Might this money be better spent on more police keeping platforms and parking lots safe, or on improving Metro service generally — rather than on a process all but designed to only look at innocent people’s bags?
    • Bag searches draw resources from real crime prevention.
    • The checks could open WMATA up to lawsuits.
    • Each detection unit apparently costs $25,000, and the units do not detect some substances of concern (Washington Times).
    • Crime takes more victims than terrorism.
    • Lack of safety on Metro has victimized more people than terrorism.
  • Bag searches lack oversight/transparency.
    • The process is done with no check on whether it’s truly non-profiling. WMATA claims that every “Xth” person (12? 10? 20?) with a bag is screened, but without independent oversight how do we know that’s true?
    • The machines allegedly just check for explosive traces.  Again, without independent oversight, how do we know?  Similarly, K-9 units are mentioned; are the dogs trained to react to explosive smells of explosives, or will they react to drugs or other substances?
  • Bag searches will cost the Metro system money *and* ridership. One more delay to factor in will make a significant number of people say “I think I’ll drive”.  Over 80% of online petition signers say they’ll use Metro less often if/when the policy is implemented.
    • Surveillance processes slow us down.
    • Treating customers with suspicion is not the way to win their patronage.
  • Bag searches take our country in the wrong direction.
    • Searches violate the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution.  We must never give up our constitutional rights — especially not when the case for doing so is this weak.  “If the policy is this broke, let’s get rid of it.”
    • Searches foster an atmosphere of fear and mistrust.
    • Bag searches strengthen support for greater repression.
    • Searches give a false impression of security to the traveling public.
    • Bag searches in the Metro perpetuate the illusion that we can dominate other countries militarily while completely protecting ourselves from retaliation here and abroad.

What do you think? Which arguments speak to you, which would you add?

Two excellent items to read about this are “WMATA bag searches make transit less safe, not more” (Matt Johnson, Greater Greater Washington), and the ACLU letter to WMATA expressing concerns about the planned bag searches; some of the above points are drawn from those items.

— please share on Twitter using the hashtag #wmata — e.g.,  rewrite this post’s headline as “Talking points vs. random #wmata search”. You can share this post on Twitter using the “share” button below; you may need to establish a Twitter account first.

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6 Responses to Talking points against the random bag searches

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Join the fight against misguided, pointless #wmata random bag searches (Petition: --

  2. Elizabeth Walter says:

    I wish to be notified of follow-up comments via email.


  3. OK. Hope you can make it to the Riders Advisory Council meeting tonight!


  4. Pingback: Metro Riders Unite! | The SAALT Spot

  5. Pingback: Tell WMATA to End Random Bag Searches | The SAALT Spot

  6. Pingback: A response to the Washington Post | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

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