There is an old, rather ridiculous, adage that, “You cannot bolt a wooden door with a boiled carrot.” Somehow this unworthy observation has survived the ages, bravely attributed to “Anonymous.” It ought long ago to have been forgotten, except I remembered it last week.
On the day terrorists hit London’s public transit system, I happened to be headed for New York on an Amtrak Metroliner. More often, I go through the two metal detectors, one CTX-9000, all shoes off, all computers out, “step over here,” “let me swab you,” “let me wand you,” “what’s this pen doing in your pocket?,” “you may dress now” ho-hum line at Ronald Reagan National Airport. I don’t mind, and always feel I have passed my first challenge of the day when done.
Surprisingly, not so on Amtrak — not one hour after the attacks were known, not 13 hours after they were known. Not half a day after “Code Orange” was in place, presumably protecting us on our public transit system. Yes, by late day, there were explosive-sniffing dogs milling among the diffuse crowd. Yes, there were visibly more police and occasional National Guardsmen, both in Washington and in New York. Yes, there was an announcement on trains to expect “random ID checks” (I observed none). Announcements even asked passengers to report “suspicious packages.”
All this was and is good, but not enough. Missing from Amtrak, at a time of maximum concern, was any sign of technology. No metal detectors, no search wands, no ion scanners, no X-Ray machines, no CT-9000s or 5000s (that both pick up explosive material), no obvious standoff detection technology.
Moreover, also missing were a single human bag search, a single human identification check prior to boarding (even for the easy-to-fabricate driver license), a single on-board identification check (at least in my car), even one uniformed officer walking the train, or any other indication of heightened law enforcement presence on the trains.
The thought occurred to me Amtrak is just darn good, well-practiced, savvy, stealthy and altogether better at all this — they are all over the threats, just not so obviously. We have this stuff quietly moving, silently detecting, sniffing, watching, assessing, aided by wide-angle hidden cameras and nondescript observers, well-disguised rail marshals, and other fast-reaction assets. For a very short time, this offered a strange combination of unlikely comfort and uneasy amusement.
As the days and weeks pass, I am sure we will see (or not see, but nevertheless enjoy) the protection offered by such easily adaptable methods, measures and technologies. My guess is a ramp-up is under way even now, and ground-level transportation choke-points will quickly become more secure.
That said, on at least one momentous day last week — when we were sure Code Orange had us covered — my sense is we actually were involved in a Johnny-come-lately game of catch-up, relying unevenly on a combination of more ground security, spotty detection and deterrence efforts, and an unpleasant eye-rubbing moment, due to an unexpected wake-up call.
It was only as I climbed down from the Amtrak train in Washington, walking at ease among others walking with unusual ease and no hint of official interference, that I thought again of the “boiled carrot.” I have never liked boiled carrots. I think perhaps it is time to give them up.
Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is currently president of the Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.