Focus on 'London-style' attacks is wrong US security reflex

The subway trains were not particularly empty here Thursday morning. Hours after the explosions shook the London Undergound and hours into that day's wall-to-wall coverage, people here walked to their Metro stops and filed through the gates like almost any other day.

The next day in London, people did the same thing. Most got their briefcases, walked to their trains and boarded them. Their hearts probably beat a bit faster. Their eyes probably watched everything a bit closer. But ultimately, the vast majority did what they always do.

It wasn't an act of bravery or an act of defiance - a word the media have used a lot in the last few days in talking about Londoners - it was a nod to reality. You can talk all you want about not letting the "terrorists win" or standing up for our way of life - but, in the end, people go on living their lives because they must.

When bombs strike a city across the Atlantic or a building down the street, life carries on.

It would serve Congress well to keep this in mind in the next weeks and months when it returns from its break. The attacks in London last week were terrible, but they taught two big and important lessons.

First, for voters, any politician from the right or left who assures your safety in exchange for your vote is simply offering promises he can't possibly keep. The bad news out of London is that the method of attack - bags or backpacks armed with explosives - can be guarded against with vigilance, but can never be completely shut out. Many terrorism experts have already said that long before the London attack, they'd wondered why the terrorists hadn't employed such methods.

And that brings us to lesson No. 2. Since 9/11, every terrorist attack brings more than memorials and obsessive coverage; it brings talk about how to prevent what happened (whatever it was) from happening again. This is an understandable reflex born of the best intentions, and sometimes it is the right idea. But not in this case.

Mass transit is a soft target by necessity. One can't bar backpacks from subway trains. And security screening is all but impossible at a bus stop. The openness of mass transit is what makes it useful and what, unfortunately, makes it a target.

Still, already the talk has begun.

According to Gallup, 69 percent of Americans favor "requiring every American to go through a metal detector when using public transportation, including trains, buses, or subways."

This, despite the fact that it's not yet completely clear how or if metal was even used in the London attack. Perhaps the safest idea would be to put screeners in people's doorways so we'd know when someone stepped out of his home with nail clippers. If nothing else it would be an effective employment program.

The boondoggles surrounding homeland security are already legendary. One federal audit, obtained by The Washington Post, raised serious questions about $303 million out of $741 million spent to evaluate and hire airport screeners - that's more than 40 percent of the total. More than $5 million went to the head of an "event logistics" firm for nine months' pay. Many of the screener employment conferences took place around well-known golf destinations.

Some of this is to be expected. When you ask the government essentially to start from zero on a whole slate of new tasks, there are going to be problems. But considering those problems, maybe it's better to try to take care of the bigger, easier problems first.

There are thousands of potentially deadly terrorist targets in the US, from nuclear reactors to chemical plants. Many aren't adequately guarded. There are thousands of access points to this country, from international borders to seaports, that do not have the equipment or staff needed.Many first responders are not properly trained or outfitted.

There will almost certainly be a lot of talk in the coming week about how to make mass transit systems more secure. Some of it will be thoughtful - much of it will not.

That's not to say nothing should be done. The Senate Appropriations Committee, for instance, may well want to reconsider whether to slash money for rail and transit security. Cutting security money may not be the wisest move right now. But completely protecting against what is already being called "a London-style attack" is not possible, and turning Congress's attention to that goal is not advisable.

That's not defiance or surrender. It's reality.

• Dante Chinni, a Washington-based journalist, writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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