Random Searches on Trains

A hefty $12 billion in federal money has been authorized for aviation security since 9/11, but compare that with just $115 million to boost rail security. Yet some 3.4 billion passengers took trains and subways in 2002, compared with 552.7 million who flew on airplanes that year.

After the Madrid train bombings of 3/11, which killed 191 people and presumably were organized by Al Qaeda, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rightly has been testing high-tech, bomb-screening machines at commuter train stations in the Washington, D.C. area, and working to increase and streamline security at Amtrak stations.

All well and good. But beginning in July in Boston, and just in time for the Democratic convention in that city, police largely will put such techno-wizardry aside, and conduct random searches of train and subway passengers - hand checking bags and IDs.

Already, the American Civil Liberties Union is calling the move "pretend security." And a number of legal experts argue that passengers have the right to refuse to be searched.

But while this first-in-the-nation train-security program clearly differs from the TSA's - is it really all that different from random checkpoints for drunk drivers that police often set up on holidays, or random searches at airports?

The program, however, will need careful tending. While the idea may scare away would-be terrorists, random searches have a low probability of actually nabbing them. Experts say that a random search of 1 in 10 would not even boost security all that much. And such random searches will need constant monitoring to make sure they are truly random and don't become a mask for racial profiling or other abuses.

Boston is a city that's seen more than its share of racial troubles. The need remains especially acute to strike the necessary balance between careful screening with passenger convenience, and to avoid infringements of civil liberties at the same time.

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