Rich Cooper

Mar 30, 2010

It’s amazing how events halfway around the globe can change the daily life for us here in the United States. That was the case for anyone who rode DC’s Metro system yesterday, as its police force was very visible following the double suicide bombings in Moscow that killed more than three dozen people. For DC Metro riders, the visible presence of uniformed police officers with canine units was meant to offer assurance that they were on top of things. While Metro police leaders were quick to state that they had no actionable intelligence that the nation’s capital subway system was under immediate threat of attack, they wanted the public to know how committed they were to making the system as safe as possible.  

For all of Metro’s visible and public troubles, security is one area where they are taking nothing to chance. As commendable as those efforts are, I think it goes unspoken that all of us in this region know it is not “if” but rather “when” a similar suicide-bombing occurs here. Let’s face facts – there is really little that can be done if someone hell-bent on killing themselves with a disguised explosive device decides to board a train and push the button. The horror of that moment will truly shatter whatever innocence and naivety is left in the National Capital Region to those who think it won’t happen here.

In speaking with several friends and colleagues yesterday who know Moscow and its subway system quite well, they all said the same thing: “They’ll have things back to normal for Tuesday morning,” and “They’re much more resilient than us when it comes to stuff like this because they’ve dealt with it before.”

Hearing responses such as those begs the question, “How would we react if that happened here?”

Despite the recent (and embarrassing) collapse of DC’s emergency communications architecture, we know the nation’s capital has one of the best equipped public safety operations in the country.  We also know they do quite a bit of training with surrounding jurisdictions on various disaster scenarios, including terrorist strikes. Unfortunately, we’ve had to see these skills and equipment put to use in response to some of Metro’s recent tragic accidents. With all of these assets in our corner, I can’t help but feel this region would not react the way my friends and colleagues said Moscow would.

If a terror strike did occur on our Metro, there is a good chance the entire system would shut down for a period of time. Whether for a full day or several, investigators from multiple jurisdictions would be crawling all over the scene trying to reconstruct what happened; all the while, Metro itself would be trying to repair the damaged system and get it back into operation.  On top of that, hordes of media would be all over the site of the attack, filling airwaves with non-stop coverage. Culturally, the transportation system’s customers would be understandably spooked – something they associated as an action that only occurs in foreign places had taken residence in their own community.  

For all of our usage of the word “resilience”, we are not the resilient society we need to be. We’ve made big strides towards becoming that community in many ways, but there is still a cultural weathering that has to take place for the resilient attitude and character to take firm root.  As Americans, we are still adapting to the threats now on our shores. Acts of terror have always been something that occurred someplace else, but we now know (without a doubt, given the recent arrests of Al Qaeda sympathizers here in the United States) that they have our public transportation systems in their crosshairs.  

Cities like Tel Aviv, Moscow, London and others have endured attacks for years. We fortunately haven’t had to deal with that carnage, but as stated earlier, it is only a matter of “when” and “where” for that to change. While there is much to learn from each of these terror-experienced cities, it will be up to us as individuals and as community members to push our political leaders, law enforcement personnel, and transportation system operators to have our cities, transportation systems, and businesses “back to work” the day after a tragic event occurs.  

That is how you beat back the attackers. Ensuring that life and liberties continue is at the heart of resilience, and if terrorists break those wills, they succeed. I’m not prepared to surrender anything to any attack, and I’m confident the region or any other locale in America isn’t either, but we are going to have to match that emotional and heartfelt resolve with responsive and strategic action when that fateful time comes.

I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I do know that time may not be on our side when the day comes that we are truly tested. 

An Addendum

Special thanks go to Denise Loeber of Catalyst Partners who shared with me a link from the Arlington Virginia Network that shows how the Arlington Fire Department has used UASI Grant dollars to support Metro in responding to future emergencies.

The video speaks for itself.  Great job Arlington, and THANK YOU Denise!

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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