On guard?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am

On Thursday night, I heard New York's mayor, police chief and a top FBI official say that there could be a terrorist attack on the city's subway at any time and that security had been stepped up. TV journalists, surrounded by crowds as they broadcast live from Times Square, talked of bombs that could be concealed in bags and baby strollers.

But that world was in marked contrast to the one I inhabited as I headed home. There were no police at the three stations I use regularly in Manhattan and Queens, I carried my bags on and off the train unchallenged, I didn't see any bomb-sniffing dogs - or anyone getting searched.

I admit, though, the fact that baby strollers were mentioned will make me a little more wary: Is that really a cute baby or a bundle of Semtex? But I know that in a day or two the extra scrutiny of my environment will be gone.

I think the authorities often have the same reaction. A week ago, I saw three police officers chatting and laughing at a checkpoint targeting those entering the subway for random bag searches. They were at a station close to Times Square at 7am searching the occasional traveller - and it did not seem like a very useful place for them to be. At that time of day, few people are leaving Times Square, while tens of thousands are entering the area from trains they boarded in the outer boroughs and other parts of Manhattan. I live in one of those boroughs and have never been searched. Ditto for my boyfriend and my friends, and I am certain for almost all the 4.5 million people who ride the subway each day.

'Random' in this case seems to mean almost never. Add in the requirement that the police who do conduct such searches are supposed to avoid any suggestion of ethnic profiling, and you have a new security policy that provides little reassurance.

Also, there isn't the technology to provide comfort. The truth is that the New York subway system has a lot less protection than the London Underground. A new camera surveillance system has only just been ordered, and it will take more than two years to fully install.

And all this in a city that has not removed the orange alert warning status since the September 11, 2001 attacks, meaning that the authorities believe it faces a high risk of terrorist attack. The rest of the country has mainly been kept at the lower, yellow level.

The main hope, therefore, is that one's fellow passengers will thwart any attack. Mind you, that might be optimistic. The other day, I travelled on a train whose floor was dusted with an orange powder. No one seemed to worry. Go back four years, and make that powder anthrax white, and we would have stopped every train.