The recent news has been full of both accidents and terrorist acts which we ought to be taking as a sign, as a big finger pointing out what should be obvious. That is to say that certain elements of the public transportation structure of our nation are incredibly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which could be particularly devastating in their cost in human life, expense and inconvenience.
Take as examples the terrorist attacks yesterday in Mumbai, where subways and busses were targeted, and the similar attacks in London – one year earlier almost to the day – and in Madrid the year before that. These attacks were all particularly effective, not only because of the destruction of life and property, but because they were impossible for the population to easily take in stride, leaving a permanent legacy of inconvenience and reconstruction which continued for months after the actual attacks. They shut down major cities for a couple of days, caused lost days at work and cost a great deal in rebuilding transportation infrastructure.
Other recent events have shown that the transportation infrastructure in the United States is just as vulnerable. The derailment on the EL in Chicago shows how much inconvenience, damage and injury can be caused by a simple mechanical failure. In addition to crushing a car and killing a young woman, the recent partial collapse in the Big Dig Tunnel in Boston paralyzed commuted traffic for days. Try a Google search for 'tunnel collapse'. they don't get that much publicity, but in the last few years there have been major tunnel collapses in China, England, India, Spain and the United States as well as other countries. Bridge collapses have also been in the news. 9/11 overshadowed it, but a few days after the attack there was a horrendous bridge collapse in Texas when a barge hit the bridge connecting South Padre Island to the mainland causing a collapse. A few month later a virtually identical accident collapsed the I-40 Bridge in Oklahoma. Both of these incidents had enormous costs in inconvenience and loss of revenue. As transportation infrastructure ages, the vulnerable elements like tunnels and bridges become more and more vulnerable to natural forces and to man made threats.
When terrorists strike their immediate goal is to scare the public more than it is to kill people. They want to get attention for their cause. A high body count guarantees a lot of attention, but shutting down a major city and causing millions of people to miss days of work and feel threatened is even better. This makes the most vulnerable elements of our transportation system enormously attractive targets, and like any modern country the US has lots of bridges and tunnels and trains, all of which are vulnerable to terrorist attack as much as they are to natural and man-made disaster.
Americans like to solve problems. When we see that something is dangerous we want to make it safe. The problem with the transportation infrastructure and what makes it particularly attractive as a terrorist target, is that elements like bridges and tunnels are virtually indefensible. Most effective protective measures which could be taken cause even more inconvenience or disruption than a terrorist attack would. Stopping and searching every car going into the Lincoln Tunnel would pretty much defeat the purpose of facilitating faster commuter travel for which the tunnel was built. Government officials responsible for these systems find themselves having to weigh the potential loss of life from a future attack against the cost and inconvenience required to implement effective security. As a result, despite cries of alarm from some quarters, what you usually get is an increased presence of men in uniform and little substantive improvement in real security. They do what they can, but their efforts are more to create an illusion of safety than to actually protect anyone.
To actually stop the kinds of terrorist attacks which would hit the most vulnerable parts of our transportation system requires going after the terrorists themselves not attempting to protect the targets. This is why the focus of government efforts since 9/11 has been on distracting terrorists and using covert means to identify and neutralize them. In a nutshell, we took the War on Terror overseas and have seen uncomfortable increases in domestic surveillance, because not only is 'offense the best defense', but given the impracticality of defending the nation, it's likely that a strong offense may be the only effective defense available.
We may not like the way the administration has chosen to fight the War on Terror, but critics may not realize how unattractive and impractical the alternatives would be. The main alternative would be a kind of 'Fortress America' approach, with massively heightened internal security, closed borders, national ID cards, widespread domestic surveillance and much more government intrusion into our lives. When concerned politicians complain about our ports not being safe and how vulnerable our infrastructure is, remember that what they're essentially arguing for is the only real security alternative – the creation of a massive police state.
Of course, there is one other option. We could accept that a certain level of vulnerability to terrorist attack is part of life and the price that we pay for convenience. For the sake of our rights, our sanity and getting to work on time, we might just have to live with the possibility that every once in a while a bridge, a tunnel or a subway is going to get blown up.