Wednesday, August 03, 2005


I read today of two gentlemen, train buffs and photographers, who went to the train station to snap some pictures of trains. As they stood there, discussing the locomotives parked on the tracks, they were accosted by policemen, who asked them what they were doing. They explained, but the policemen were still suspicious. By this time, a crowd had gathered, as the policemen hauled the men away for questioning.

Evidently taking pictures of any form of communication, trains, planes or buses, is taboo these days. After all, terrorists just might be taking pictures for use in their nefarious plans. Nor can one snap pictures of bridges, overpasses or tall buildings in big cities. All of this might subject you to intense questioning, if not arrest. Your home could be searched, your computer confiscated, your acquaintances questioned.

All of this is possible because of the Patriot Act. It is easy to become incensed at these intrusions, but also easy to believe that the authorities are making our country safer. There has always been a fine line between civil law and civil rights. In today's world, civil rights is on the list, right under the line that says "Panic".

However, the incident concerning the train and the photographers seemed particularly ironic to me. I just returned from a trip to Montana on Amtrak, accompanied by my little Hearing Ear Dog. It was quite a trip, the worst of which was the wait in the crowded Chicago station. But, truthfully, it was no worse than the airport on the day before Christmas. That was a scene from a horror movie!

The thing is, every one of us boarding that train carried an assortment of suitcases. I wore a backpack, because this is the only way I can carry my wallet and other essentials, and still have hands free to take care of luggage and hang onto Jedi.

And she is a seasoned traveler. The hissing and banging and hooting of the train didn't bother her at all. She calmly took in the crowded scene as though it were an everyday occurrence.

When the passengers boarded the train, the luggage was piled in one corner of the car as we climbed up the steps. Each car has this nook to hold luggage, and the car I was in had luggage spilling into the passageway.

No one checked the luggage. No one checked my back pack. There was no search of passengers as they boarded the train. At several stops, passengers left the train and others came on. Again there was no search. Not a suspicion of terrorism on that train, nor any screening of passengers.

Which makes one wonder why taking pictures of the trains is deemed of more importance than the hundreds of people boarding them carrying all manner of luggage.

It seems to me that trains and buses have been sorely neglected when it comes to screening luggage and passengers. Yet, in London, it was buses that were targeted by terrorists, causing the deaths and injuries of many passengers. That the same thing has not happened in America is a wonder, for we have been notoriously lax in some areas.

Since the London attacks, police are spotchecking the passengers boarding the New York subway. I presume other large cities are doing the same. I have never thought "spotchecking" was all that thorough. It does no good to check one bag, if fifteen others pass through, with one of them containing an explosive device.

Like most of us, I have seen the reports on the expenditures of Homeland Security. I have heard of small towns in various states that have received large amounts of Homeland Security money and have invested it in such things as Segways or heavy rubber suits for their police personnel, suits so heavy and so hot they could only be worn for fifteen minutes at a time.

In the meantime, while small towns, townships and counties have been frittering this funding on such ridiculous expenditures, our trains and buses have been chugging along, filled with people, with no screening at all. It doesn't take too much of an imagination to envision a bus, taken over by a group of terrorists loaded with explosives, to be taken over and driven into a large building or a nuclear plant or a chemical factory. And the trains, carrying hundreds of people, could be exploded, blown off the tracks, right in the middle of a city. It's possible.

Sometimes it makes one wonder who is at the helm of this venture, Homeland Security. They are paid an adequate salary, I am sure. And they have a big job to do, an almost impossible job. But exactly what have they done, besides furnishing security at airports? From what I read, our chemical factories, our nuclear plants, our borders are still unguarded. And the trains...well, an explosion at the Chicago station might possibly be worse than the World Trade Center in fatalities.

At the risk of offending anyone, I live in Michigan not far from the Canadian border. All one seems to have to do to enter this country is say he has been gambling at the Windsor Casino, chuckle a bit about the money lost, claim that nothing has been purchased during the trip, and drive away.

Anyway, I chugged on that train all the way to Montana, with folks getting on, getting off, and that pile of luggage growing larger, diminishing somewhat, then growing larger again. It was relaxed. It was peaceful. And it was yesterday, before 9/11, before all the big trouble came to our country. I think this is what I hate most about the terrorists. We had such a beautifully relaxed way of life...people walking through the airport at their leisure, no worries about men obsessed with their screwy fundamentalist philosophy and their hatred of Americans. They brought this hatred home to us, and I have not yet adjusted to living in fear.

I'm not too fond of the Patriot Act, and I suspect most people are leery of it. It just doesn't seem American to lock people up indefinitely, with the President holding the keys. It seems to me that one man should never have that kind of power. It seems to me that a panel of people from various walks of life should hold those keys. Indefinitely could be a long, long time.

One can only hope these powers will not be abused. Of course, this is naive, because power is almost always abused. But we are at the mercy of those in charge, and Homeland Security is of primary importance to all of us. I just wonder sometimes how all of this will be written in the history books. Will we be depicted as a brave and courageous people? Or will we be described as a bunch of utter idiots, tossing money around and accomplishing very little?

Well, as George Bush is reported to have said, "History books? Who cares? We'll all be dead!"