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San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Bay Area residents, like Americans everywhere, reacted to Thursday's attacks in London with horror. At the same time, they were surely relieved that this latest attack did not happen in the Bay Area.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, we have all spent time envisioning terrorist attacks close to home. Potential targets in San Francisco are obvious: Pac Bell Park, BART, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.
So, while the "new normal" for Americans everywhere includes a heavy dose of fear and increased vigilance, we need to look closely at ourselves and our communities and ask whether we are putting greater awareness to good use in the form of greater preparedness.
I gave a talk on homeland security recently to room full of New Yorkers and Washington policy types — people who live in the two cities directly affected by Sept. 11 — and took a straw poll. Some 70 percent believed that another such attack was imminent in either city within the next three years. If anyone would be motivated to have plans in place to respond to an attack, these would be the people.
Disappointingly, fewer than 1 in 5 had plans on where to go and how to coordinate with family members and loved ones. If the percentage of people with a plan in the event of a terrorist attack was that low in New York and Washington, imagine how much less prepared must be people in other U.S. cities who believe they are much less likely to be attacked.
Luckily, Bay Area residents may be more prepared than most. Under frequent earthquake threat, San Franciscans are more likely than other Americans to have readied disaster preparedness kits and family-coordination plans.
While Americans should do more themselves to prepare for the event of an attack, they also have every right to demand more from Washington.
Data on terrorist attacks over decades shows that mass transit is the most frequent target and, on average, attacks on public transportation have the highest fatality rates. Furthermore, Americans take public transportation 32 million times a day, 16 times more than they travel on domestic airlines. Despite these facts, Washington is spending nearly $4 billion annually on securing airplanes and less than $300 million annually on security for all other forms of transportation combined, including all passenger rail, subways, ferries and buses.
Spending 10 to 20 times more on airplanes relative to all of public transportation may not make sense. At the same time, Congress has failed to pass comprehensive transit security legislation since Sept. 11. The Senate Appropriations Committee has recently sought to cut rail and transit security grants from $150 million to $100 million.
Interviews with public-transportation authority managers nationwide indicate that the biggest hurdle to making transit systems safer is a lack of resources. Estimates for what's needed range from $3 billion to $6 billion over three years. Even at the low end of these estimates, we may be spending less than one-tenth of what we need annually to improve our transit systems with commonsense improvements, such as better camera and surveillance systems and better communications. We are not doing enough to improve passenger survivability after attacks by upgrading lighting, stairwells and ventilation. Nor are we spending enough on better training and public-awareness campaigns.
To be sure, public transportation systems such as BART are hard to secure. Mass transit is an "open" system that cannot be secured as can airports. It would be impossible to individually screen every subway rider and still get people to work on time. There are no silver bullets to make American mass transit more secure, but incremental improvements will go a long way toward increasing the hurdles terrorists face when trying to execute attacks on subways.
At a local level, Americans need to do more than simply hope that they won't be the next target. We should empower ourselves and our communities to be as vigilant and as prepared as possible.
At a national level, we should hope that the London attacks sharpen Washington's focus to do more to help us prepare for similar attacks.
The simple question that Washington must be able to answer is this: "If we had one last dollar to spend on securing likely targets in the United States, how would we spend it?" Until we have a way to strategically prioritize our national efforts, it will be hard to know how well we are doing to make the nation safer.
Daniel B. Prieto is research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. He is a former staffer on the Homeland Security Committe.