Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Eternal Vigliance

In preparing my lecture the other night, I was reviewing the concepts of security for mass transit. When people think of transportation related security issues, for the most part they tend to think of air travel. The events of 9-11 focused most of our homeland security efforts at airports. The other focus has been the inspection of shipping containers but unless you are directly involved with the shipping industry you probably only experience security at airports.

Those readers living in cities with major mass transit systems have a different understanding of transportation related security. New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington DC all have mass transit systems that move millions of commuters around the metropolitan area. As commuters gather to get board the transit system, they are easy targets for a terrorist attack. The Aum Shin Rikyo attack in 1995 used sarin gas in the Japanese subway systems. Seven people were killed in the attack and over 500 required medical attention.

Cincinnati has the Metro bus system, an AMTRAK station and a Greyhound bus station. AMTRAK has very limited service so there just is the mass of travelers necessary to make it an attractive target. The majority of commuters use the Metro but there are never more than a handful of commuters getting on or off the bus at one time. I began to think Cincinnati really didn’t have a challenge in regard to an attack on a mass transit system. But then I remembered that an attack usually is against your weakest spot. The Greyhound bus station may be one of those areas.

Air travel has become quite expensive so many people who need to travel great distances rely on Greyhound buses. I ask my students the other night if they had ever heard of Greyhound and they all looked at me like I’d grown three heads. I had thought Greyhound would be commonly understood, that’s why faculty shouldn’t make assumptions. In addition to carrying passengers, Greyhound also moves parcels (Greyhound PackageXpress) offering same day service or early next day service. Suddenly the lowly Greyhound station on Gilbert Avenue become a very intriguing topic. A bomb scare at the station could impact traffic on I-71 creating gridlock for the morning or evening commute. Sometimes it isn’t just about destroying a target as much as creating panic or confusion.

The Department of Homeland Security has spent millions on training and equipping the Transportation Security Administration to detect threats at airports. Major metropolitan areas have spent huge sums of local taxpayer dollars to protect their subways and light rail systems. How much though has been spent on the lowly bus terminal? Strategists regardless of their field will always target the weakest link in any system. While fewer travelers go by bus, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for a terrorist (who doesn’t have to hail from a foreign national or subscribe to a particular theology) to create trouble. A bomb or a chemical weapon could be smuggled into a bus terminal much more easily than an airport. While the total number effected may be less, the response from law enforcement and fire could tie-up resources for hours. Attacking multiple targets in this manner could overcome several hurdles with attack airports or shipping containers.

It doesn’t take Tom Clancy type scenario to create a catastrophe, just an opportunity. To use a quote most often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

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