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Random Bag Checks on Transit: Neither Safe Nor Free

Hundreds of thousands of people use NJ Transit and the PATH trains every day, carrying with them purses, briefcases, backpacks, shopping bags, and suitcases. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding people traveling to and from work, not terrorists. These commuters are now subject to random bag searches, yet another example of our government taking away our rights and giving back nothing more than a false sense of security.

There is little reason to believe that random bag searches will deter terrorist attacks. Trying to detect a would-be terrorist amongst millions of daily passengers is like trying to find a needle in a haystack; by casting a net on hundreds of thousands of daily travelers without any suspicion of wrongdoing we only make that haystack bigger. Random bag searches are, in the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, an example of a "public relations security system." They create the illusion of security by making people feel like something is being done whereas, in fact, they are a misuse of resources. In undertaking mass random bag searches, our government diverts much-needed resources from proven law enforcement methods like using information gathering, interviews, and behavioral observation as a basis for investigation. Schneier points out that, "Counterterrorism is most effective when it doesn't make arbitrary assumptions about the terrorists' plans or assume particular tactics that can cause the terrorists to make insignificant modifications in their plans. Law enforcement officers should stop random bag searches and instead devote their resources to intelligence and investigation -- stopping the terrorists regardless of what their plans are."

In addition to the failures of random bag searches as a security measure, they also violate our privacy rights and Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizure. The NJ Transit and Port Authority policies permit (indeed require) police to the search bags and briefcases of innocent commuters who face the choice of exposing sensitive medical and other personal items to government and public view or being denied their right to travel, a necessity of work and personal life. While words like "constitutional violation" might not resound with a frightened public, experiences like having one's birth control, medication, cigarettes, phone book, diary, or other personal items inspected and exposed reminds us why we in the United States treasure our privacy. Unfortunately, if the government's idea is to search all people who enter areas where large numbers of people congregate, this policy is not a far cry from forcing people to give up their right to personal privacy and the right to be free from government searches at-will, putting a civil liberties pricetag on walking down Main Street or shopping at the local market.

Although transit officials have assured us that the searches will indeed be "random," the practice could very well invite racial, ethnic and religious profiling. We in New Jersey, with our unfortunate history of racial profiling of African Americans on the New Jersey Turnpike should certainly be sensitive to this possibility. Racial profiling is morally unacceptable and by alienating certain communities, it also undermines the police's abilities to investigate crimes as well as terrorism.

The rights at stake here - to live one's life freely and without undue suspicion or infringement of privacy - are the very rights that Americans proudly cherish as distinguishing us from many other countries in the world. If we cede these because of fear, then the terrorists achieve more than death and destruction, their tactics persuade us to sacrifice the very essence of our freedom. Henry David Thoreau, in a sentiment echoed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt ninety years later, wrote: "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear." We as Americans cannot let fear blind us to those values and principles that define us as a nation and people, nor let it blind us from identifying good policy from bad.

Our national character is most tested not at times at peace, but in times of crisis. We can find many examples of how, in times of crisis, our government has taken actions that we as a country later look back upon with regret such as the Palmer raids after World War I, the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, McCarthyism and blacklisting during the height of the Cold War, and FBI infiltration of peaceful political and protest groups during the Vietnam War. These memories leave us with feelings of shame for betraying our founding principles of freedom, justice and equality. In each case, our government's actions came at a time of fear, when the American people are vulnerable to political "quick fix" proposals from our leaders. Now is the time to reject yet another government measure that sacrifices our freedom and does nothing to keep us safe, so we don't have to look back with shame again.

-By Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director

Let us know about your experiences with random searches: Mass Transit Random Search Report Form

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