info 07.27.05

Fearful Times

I was going to run a different article for today's MUG, but something happened last night that scared the hell out of me. And it was a reader who did it.

As it happened, I had just come from seeing "Primo," the extraordinary one-man show by Anthony Sher that lays out, in unembroidered language, what existence was like in Auschwitz for Primo Levi. One of the key tenets for survival at the camp, Levi learn early on, is don't ask questions. He also comes to understand that if your intent is to dehumanize, this prohibition works well.

On Monday, in response to the newly instituted random subway searches, MUG questioned the efficacy of these searches as they are currently set up. It seemed to me that this deployment of resources is largely cosmetic (and terrorism experts I have heard interviewed have said essentially the same thing), designed to make riders feel better. That's not a bad goal in and of itself, but the benefit of making people feel better now is outweighed, perhaps, by the unease it will have created when, despite this, a bomb goes off. If the searches are stopped, and there is a bombing, people will say that we should have had searches. But I'd still like to see a more rational approach to threats than knee-jerk reactions after an event.

I'd like to see things done that might reduce the threat or minimize the casualties in an attack. Specifically, fix the communication problems among the first responders, where virtually no progress has been made since 9-11. Improve underground communications, invest in more cameras, increase ease of egress, use bomb-sniffing dogs. Consider using in subway cars the special glass that breaks in such a way as to minimize injuries in a bombing. And the technology is there, the Israelis having developed it, to use bomb-sensor technology for passengers boarding buses.

The mail from Monday ran 79 against the searches and four in favor of them. Even if it had been the other way around, I see no harm in asking the question. One reader wrote, "You might have heard in the real press (see for polls) that the average New York subway rider sees the searches as positive (which should also make you uneasy about broadcasting your anti-search views to your NYC readership)."

That made me uneasy all right, but not for the reason the author of the email supposed. I was uneasy that the author would think that simply because, even if true, New Yorkers favor the searches, that that is a reason not to point out what seem to me flaws in the logic of those searches.

And then, after seeing "Primo," last night, I found this in my email, from D. Stein: "How dare you question the subway searches???!?!?! You sound completely ignorant and foolish."

I know I blanched, because I felt the blood instantly drain from my face. It's not the second sentence — I'm ignorant and foolish on a daily basis. It was that a fellow New Yorker was so fearful that he was willing to fall into lock-step with authority and was shocked that someone else would not. Isn't asking questions, as Primo Levi learned, one of the fundamental elements of freedom?

Charlie Suisman

coney island

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