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Why flood US subways with heavily armed policemen in response to a suicide bomb attack in Russia?

Suicide bombers don't want to shoot it out with police.  They want to avoid the police and simply blow themselves up in a crowd.

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Securing our Subways

Present Methods Don't and Can't Work

Many subway stations in many cities are already operating at full capacity.  Anything that slows down the flow of people will cause great problems.




Our society is increasingly risk averse.

And so when unavoidable security risks are exposed, such as by the Moscow subway bombings, we clamor for safety in our travels, even if the risks are much lower than those related to getting struck by lightning.

Unfortunately the public pressure to feel safe causes law enforcement agencies to adopt 'feel good' responses that in reality provide no actual security at all.

Here are some examples of the ridiculous 'feel good' security we are offered, and how it is they are of no real value.  Please read on to the next two parts of this series for some responses that might work.


This is part three of a five part series on the risks in mass transit systems and how to protect against them.  If you've directly landed on this page from a search engine, you might wish to start at the beginning of the series and read forward.

Typical Security Responses

There are a number of security measures often deployed, for short or longer terms, when security is escalated on public transport.

Increased uniform police

This is perhaps the number one typical response, combined with giving the police more firepower and making them dress in more 'scary' combat type uniforms.

As mentioned in the second part of this article series, adding more uniform police, whether they be ridiculously over-armed or not, is of little value, because terrorists can see the police and know to avoid them, whereas the terrorists themselves are seldom obvious, especially when part of a crowd.

Having any number of police can't do anything to stop a bomb going off or to reduce its damage once the terrorist pushes the detonate button.

Increased undercover police

As again mentioned in the preceding part of this series, increasing the number of undercover police is a much better strategy than increasing the number of uniformed police.

Undercover operatives can do their snooping and evaluating without being observed by their targets.  Undercover police can even 'accidentally' bump against people if they suspect they might have an explosive belt underneath their jacket, and possibly might have some sort of electronic 'sniffer' on them to surreptitiously test for explosive odors.

But, think of the numbers.  How many undercover operatives are needed to have a fair chance of spotting potential terrorists among 5.2 million daily passengers (on the NY subway system alone)?  They have to spread themselves over 468 stations, the multiple platforms on each station, the 8200 train journeys each day, and the 6500 carriages in use each day, and over all 24 hours of every day.

Even with 10,000 or more undercover officers always on duty (and a total staff of 50,000 or more to allow for always having 10,000 officers on duty), the reality is that many times terrorists are not obvious or easy to recognize.  They look just like many other normal people, and they don't do anything unusual or threatening until they press the detonator switch, an action which instantly results in the lethal blast.

Behavior profiling

The TSA are keen on behavior profiling activities at airports, although the only statistics available suggest such activities are an utter and complete waste of time and resource.

But even if behavior profiling works at airports, it is unlikely to work in subways.  In an airport, there is much less rush and much less congestion, and all passengers come face to face with and interact with multiple TSA officials as they go through security.  Passengers then have an hour or more to display unusual behavior while waiting for their plane, and the TSA can in a somewhat leisurely manner watch and consider the possible threat posed by any particular passenger of interest.  Of equal value is that they can intercede and interview passengers at any time, and can almost always do so without causing the passenger to miss his/her flight.

But in a rush of people moving purposefully and without pause through a subway station, and with a broader spectrum of demographics applying to the commuters than at an airport, there is very little opportunity to carefully study and analyze the people moving through the station, and no 'innocent' contact opportunities.  Furthermore, any passengers who are stopped and questioned will almost certainly miss a train or two, and so the level of public resistance to such actions will increase, making the security personnel more reluctant to act on mild suspicion, a reluctance already built upon layers of concern about being accused of 'ethnic profiling'.

There's another problem too.  If a genuine suicide bomber is detained for questioning, what will they do?  Say 'it's a fair cop' and surrender, carefully disarming their bomb?  Or will they wait until they are surrounded by police and then blow themselves up?


Explosive sniffing dogs may have some limited value, but the problem is that terrorists can see them.  Unlike an airport where all passengers have to pass through certain check points and choke points, and often in close to single file, subway stations are designed to allow lots of people to pass in unconstricted manner.

So if a terrorist with a bomb sees a police dog on one side of the turnstiles, he'll simply go through the turnstiles on the other side.  If there are police dogs on both sides, he'll go through the one in the middle.

If he sees a dog on a platform, he'll go to a different platform, or stay at the other end of the current platform, and so on.

Dogs have excellent noses, but in a situation with a constant stream of people walking past, with all sorts of different body odors and other smells associated with the people, their belongings, any food they have with them, and so on, and with the briefest of contacts with each, they'll get overwhelmed and tired very quickly, and the chances of the dogs detecting an explosive is like hearing a single person's shout in a sports stadium full of cheering fans.

In addition, the number of dogs needed to secure a subway system is enormous.  There would need to be multiple dogs at every entrance to every subway station, and there would need to be multiple dogs working short shifts - plus, of course each dog needs a handler, too.

Random station searches of all passengers

On occasion the TSA has done sudden saturation security procedures, without prior warning, at public transport locations.

But this is an exceedingly rare event, so the chances of one happening at the same time and place as a terrorist plot was being executed is about the same as the chance of you winning the lottery this week.  Have you ever encountered a TSA sweep when using mass transit?  No, I didn't think so.

Furthermore, as soon as terrorists noticed something unusual occurring up ahead at any station, they could simply turn around and leave, and come back the next day (or simply move to another station), and phone their accomplices and advise them of the problem too.

These occasional saturation searches also sit uncomfortably in a free nation with some remaining constitutional rights and expectations about freedom from random search.

Video monitoring

London in particular has a stunning number of video cameras on its underground system (and everywhere else in the city too), and most other jurisdictions are continuing to add more and more and more cameras to their systems.

There can be no doubt that video monitoring is enormously helpful after an attack to help identify who the suicide bombers were.  But knowing the identities of the now-dead bombers is cold comfort for the relatives of the also now-dead victims.

If it is very difficult to detect possible terrorists in person, it is even harder to do so when looking at a tiny image on a television monitor.

And unless there's to be a very high ratio of people monitoring the cameras, most cameras will be unmonitored, and most of the people monitoring banks of video screens will be so busy switching their focus from one image to the next to the next that they're unlikely to pick up on any subtle clues about a passenger acting suspiciously (whatever such clues may be) because such clues are obscured by the small images and need careful observation over time to spot.

Lastly, maybe someone does notice something suspicious on a camera.  By the time he has contacted security staff in the station, and by the time they have deployed to where the suspicious person is - oooops - the person may have boarded a train and departed, or may have detonated their device, or - upon noticing a throng of police rushing at them, may immediately detonate their device, killing not only themselves and other nearby passengers, but the security officers too.

One also has to wonder just how enthusiastic a minimum wage security officer will be to respond when told 'John, urgently run to this platform and apprehend this suspect who we believe is about to blow himself up'.

So, if there are major problems with all these traditional types of 'security', what - if anything - can be done to protect us?  Please read on to the next part of our series for a discussion of some promising new security technologies.

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Originally published 2 Apr 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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Subway and Mass Transit Security Challenges
Securing our Subways
New Technologies to Secure Mass Transit
The Best Solution

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