The surest way for a mode of transportation to get a boost in federal funding is for it to suffer a terrorist attack, anywhere in the world. When coordinated bombings on the Madrid train system killed 191 people in March 2004, the U.S. Congress immediately created a $150 million grant program for transit and rail security. Now, in the aftermath of the recent attacks on the London subway system, lawmakers are pushing for more. Sen. Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, proposes an increase of $100 million. Other senators want more: New York Democrat Chuck Schumer talks of $200 million, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby has called for $1.2 billion, and New York Democrat Hillary Clinton wants $1.3 billion. Of course, all of those numbers pale in comparison with the $6 billion sought by William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.
Advocates of such proposals often point to the gap between spending on aviation security and transit security, but that is the wrong way of looking at the problem. Since the number of possible attacks is unlimited, while the resources we can devote to preventing them are very limited, spending decisions should involve careful cost-benefit analysis. Not every preventive measure is worth funding, and the greatest risks must be addressed first and most intensively.
While members of Congress often overlook this common-sense principle, homeland-security secretary Michael Chertoff has made it the foundation of his department's philosophy. On July 14, he explained why he wouldn't change his transit-security policy based on a single event, telling a reporter: "The truth of the matter is that a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about priorities, you are going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."
His comments drew sharp criticism, mainly from Senate Democrats representing metropolitan areas with mass-transit systems. They argue that such systems are vulnerable to terrorists, as demonstrated by the Madrid and London bombings. But all transportation systems have inherent weaknesses; if the justification for federal intervention were vulnerability, every mode of transportation would qualify, and we would quickly run out of funds.
The truth that most people ignore is that not all terrorist attacks have the same consequences. The September 11 attacks claimed close to 3,000 lives in New York City. In comparison, a successful attack on the Washington, D.C., subway might kill 60 people; and, at the other end of the spectrum, the detonation of a less-than-perfect one-kiloton nuclear bomb in lower Manhattan would--in the estimate of the Federation of American Scientists--kill at least 200,000 people.
A glance at these numbers makes it clear where our priorities should be--but federal priorities have a way of defying logic. In the last four years, the Department of Homeland Security has spent $250 million on transit security and $18 billion on aviation security, suggesting that these priorities have been ranked roughly as they should be. During the same period, however, total spending on nuclear-threat reduction by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense was just $4 billion, despite the fact that a nuclear bombing would be worse by several orders of magnitude than even the worst September 11-style attack.
Our homeland-security strategy should be altered to reflect the true dimensions of the different types of threat. Furthermore, we should assign the responsibility for addressing a particular threat to the entity most able to reduce it, and most likely to benefit from its reduction. Espionage, intelligence, and border protection benefit all of the states, so the federal government should invest in them. But the benefits of protecting subways and buses are enjoyed by the residents of a particular state, so these investments should be made at the state level. (That is not to deny the possibility that the entire economy might suffer if the subway in Washington, D.C., were hit by a terrorist strike, but rather that the principal economic impact of such an unfortunate event would be felt locally.) Moreover, most transit systems are regulated and supervised by state and local authorities, and it is local law-enforcement officers who understand their unique design characteristics. They are therefore more qualified than federal agents to protect them.
It's noteworthy that state and local authorities dedicate little of the billions of dollars in federal grants they receive to mass-transit security. If they really think protecting mass transit should be a higher priority, they can begin by allocating more funding to that goal. In any case, throwing money at transit security is unlikely to help much. The London subway system is considered one of the best-protected in the world, required as it was to endure the threat of bombings by Irish Republican Army terrorists. Yet it was attacked twice in recent weeks, and the second attempted bombing--foiled only by a malfunction of the bombs' detonators--took place while the subway system was in maximum-alert mode.
It isn't surprising, then, that many analysts think options for preventing such attacks are limited. The difficulty of safeguarding subway stations follows from the fact that they are designed to be very open and give people quick access. You simply cannot install airport-style security screening in them without rendering them unable to perform their intended function.
So what is the solution? The attacker always has the advantage of choosing where to attack, and terrorists will look for weaknesses in our defenses just as Hitler's army sidestepped the Maginot Line. Consequently, intelligence gathering and counterintelligence are often the most cost-effective defense. The federal government should accordingly devote a large portion of its homeland-security funds toward preempting attacks before they are set in motion. The second-best solution is to mitigate the damage caused by an attack. Without knowing where or how an attack will occur, authorities can lower expected damage by developing plans to manage the attack's aftermath. In the case of a subway bombing, for instance, such plans might include developing effective means of evacuation, placing emergency equipment within easy reach, and training personnel to respond to emergencies.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, has also made a helpful proposal: He would toughen penalties--and allow the death penalty--for attacks on mass-transit systems. While it is true that suicide bombers have little fear of execution, it is not necessarily the case that everyone who might attack a subway intends to die in the process. Such people can be deterred at little cost.
The surest way to obstruct the development of a successful defense against terrorist attack is to let our policy be guided by a series of knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately, that is precisely what Congress is engaging in today. Until money is allocated on the basis of sound cost-benefit analysis, we will become poorer, but no safer.
Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
(c) 2005 National Review, Inc.