A Step Backward – or a Step Forward?

The Curmudgeon has never been much for security checks.  When he flew, prior to 9/11, he bristled at airport security checks and if one of the people working those security checkpoints so much as looked at him sideways he would reach for his belt, start to undo it, and ask if the person would like to perform a cavity search.  (He has no idea what he would have done had the person called his bluff.  Despite this, he continues to run this bluff, doing so as recently as June of this year, when he needed to pass through a security check before entering a hospital emergency room, wondering briefly, as he did, if he would have been required to undergo that check if he had been, say, bleeding profusely.)  He once nearly came to blows with a security person at the Spectrum in Philadelphia when he attended a hockey game and was subjected to an unexpected and unprecedented pat-down. Just a few years ago he declared that he had attended his last Phillies game because he so resented the assumption that he was a criminal that is implicit in the demand to subject him to a security search for the privilege of spending a lot of money to watch an under-talented team play baseball badly.  (As he writes his first draft of this piece, however, he has in his back pocket a ticket for tonight’s Phillies game.  Sometimes, the desire to see an old friend trumps his anger over the assumption that he enters a public place with bad intentions.)

9/11, of course, changed everything.  The Curmudgeon can still be a bit obnoxious at public arena security checks but he understands that when he flies, he just needs to keep his mouth shut and swallow his anger (and also, to fly as seldom as he possibly can).  We can tell ourselves that as long as we don’t succumb to irrational fears we let the terrorists know that they haven’t won, but in his mind, we ceded that ground 17 years ago.  The terrorists won.

A pretty nice way to travel

While he is a telecommuter, The Curmudgeon is occasionally asked to spend the day at company headquarters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  It’s an easy trip for him:  a drive of about 25 minutes to the train station in Philadelphia followed by a 1:45 train ride sitting in a seat significantly wider and more comfortable and with more leg room than one on an airplane and always with a vacant seat beside him. Once he arrives in Harrisburg he has a walk of only ten minutes to the office.  It is, in all, a wonderfully civilized way to travel — if one really must travel.

The train station is easy to navigate and comfortable.  It’s brightly lit, there are plenty of shops to satisfy any beverage and food needs, and the bathrooms, when the Curmudgeon arrives a few minutes before seven in the morning, are passably clean.  (In contrast to many years ago, when you had to hold your breath – literally, because of the smell – when you entered and bring your own toilet paper). You take a seat – in the waiting area, not the bathroom – and wait until they call your train. Occasionally, as you wait, you see an Amtrak police officer pass with a bomb-smelling German shepherd on a leash, looking for bad guys.  Once you hear the call for your train you head to the appropriate stairwell, show your ticket, and descend a long flight of stairs to the train platform. Nowadays you don’t even need the paper ticket; you just turn on your phone and show them your ticket and head down the stairwell.

Cops, dogs, but no ticket check

Only on this particular day, though, The Curmudgeon learned that the process has changed.  As announced over the loudspeaker and reinforced at the stairwell, passengers no longer need to show their ticket or their phone before heading to the platform.  Instead, they show either ticket or phone to the Amtrak personnel on the train after it has departed from the station.

And as antagonistic as The Curmudgeon is to the entire security process and assumption that we are all planning mass mayhem, he does not understand this change at all.  How can law enforcement officials prevent potential bad guys from doing their thing if people don’t even need to show a ticket until the train is already in motion?  Isn’t that a green light for someone to get on a train and attempt something nefarious before the conductor has come to take his ticket – and, in the case of a train leaving the station in Philadelphia, while the train is still under a high-rise office building or starting its westward trip through a densely populated urban area?

While a part of The Curmudgeon is thrilled with this change of policy, the other part of him has to wonder.  He has already said, even in the days immediately following 9/11, that he’d rather take his chances with terrorists than surrender the easy civil liberty of unfettered mobility that has been one of the hallmarks of living in the U.S. – we’ve all seen those movies where the gendarmes in France appear to be free, based on nothing other than mere whim, to go up to a person and demand “Your papers, please” – he suspects that this change of policy is a bad decision based on an unmerited relaxation of security.  It’s hard to believe that in a country where a meaningful number of people, led by their president, want to build a wall to separate their country from another with evil, brown-skinned people with cantaloupe-sized calves, that we can suddenly let people ride trains without any kind of security check.  The Curmudgeon would hate to be the head of Amtrak when called to testify at a congressional hearing when this new policy leads to some kind of incident that the old approach, which while annoying barely constituted real security at all, might have prevented.

And that, in turn, leaves him to wonder: is this new policy a step forward or a step backward?

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