All Aboard Amtrak!: Forget About the Fourth Amendment

Yesterday, Tuesday, February 19th, the Associated Press’ Sarah Karush reported (Amtrak to Search at Random) on Amtrak’s "major new security shift," in which "Amtrak passengers will have to submit to random screening of carry-on bags" and will include "officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains."

However, no need to worry, implies the Sarah, because "Amtrak officials insist their new procedures won’t hold up the flow of passengers." The reassurance continues as they quote Bill Rooney, Amtrak’s vice president for security strategy and special operations, who truthfully proclaims, "This is not about train delays." 

It is in Rooney’s confirmation that "this is not about train delays" that the AP fails miserably at their job. No where in the article were there any concerns raised about possible infringements of civil liberties–nevermind actually quoting an expert on the issue. Rather, Sarah merely focuses on whether service time will be interrupted–something that warrants concern but is by no means the only one, or even the most important. Meanwhile, we, the reader and the public, are supposed to be comforted by this fact, while we cannot help to wonder if there is any semblance of the Fourth Amendment (the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures) still alive and kicking.  This thought becomes ever more pressing when we have seen this policy implemented in both the Boston and New York City Subways. 

In both cases, Boston and New York City, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued statements condemning such a policy. In a good example of the possible serious fourth amendment violations, I will quote a section of the the ACLU of Massachusetts’ press release, released July 22, 2004:

"This policy violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches without making anyone safer," said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Any system that is truly random — in which the police exercise no discretion — will be incapable of either catching or deterring terrorists, given that more than one million people use the ‘T’ each day. But it will enable police to search people without probable cause."

In a country where our political institutions are undemocratically controlled by the rich and powerful, giving the police the legal authority to "search people without probable cause" not only infringed upon our civil liberties, it brings the people of this country further and further away from actually transforming our political system and larger society into a participatory and democratic one.

Given that at the time of reporting this, there was already plenty of precedent of public objection to such policies, giving Sarah and the AP no excuse to omit such concerns. No excuse except, of course, for maintaining the lack of journalistic integrity that persists and perpetuating the status quo of unquestionable obedience to an undemocratic government’s and the people it serves’ rule.

That brings me to another point. Yes, you heard me right. The government’s rule. Amtrak, also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, is a government owned and run service. In fact, It’s board of directors are appointed by the President and are subject to confirmation by the Senate. I think this fact tends to allude people’s minds, given that the government cries bloody murder at the notion of nationalizing existing, for the most part, privatized services, such as health care. 

I could go off in a number of many different directions regarding this point, but for the sake of this post, I will just make one that I believe is relevant to the upcoming elections.


In any corporation, the board of directors have final say in all policies. However, in the case of Amtrak, since it is a government run corporation whose board of directors are appointed and confirmed by our elected (I use elected loosely given the recent accusations of voter fraud in the last two presidential elections) leaders–the President and the Senate–they need to be held accountable for the implementation of this egregious policy, and we, the people, need to demand that it be rescinded.

This November, there is a very good chance that a Democrat will be elected President, and if not, it’s almost positive that the Democrats will continue to control Congress. Subsequently, we cannot look at this as another Bush-backed policy but as something the Democrats are complicit in and have the power to change. However, the fact that our government is alienated from and undemocratically disconnected from the will and control of the greater population, we cannot merely ask them to end this policy. This means that this issue needs to be added to the larger agenda of the pro-democracy social justice movements everywhere within America.  And it is in the context of our movements that we can address this issue, by forcing change. 

There are multiple strategies to go about this, but I would just like to highlight one aspect of the Amtrak situation that could prove usefull: Amtrak is fully unionized, and the unions hold tremendous clout.  This is in our advantage and should be utilized to the fullest effect.

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