Magazine article Risk Management

Threat Level: Ridiculous

Magazine article Risk Management

Threat Level: Ridiculous

Article excerpt

One of the distinguishing characteristics about my hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania is that it is smack in the middle of an extensive network of man-made waterways that were built in the early 1800s to transport goods and materials (especially coal) all over the northeastern United States. The canals were made obsolete by railroads and in places like Easton they were preserved for their historical value and as a tourist attraction. I, and every kid I knew, visited the National Canal Museum and took a boat ride on the nearby Lehigh Canal at least once in our youth. It was sort of a rite of passage--the boat moves along at just a few miles an hour in a water-filled ditch that runs parallel to the Lehigh River, pulled on a separate tow path by mules tended by drivers wearing 1800s period dress. Really, it's more fun than it sounds.

Because the canals are national waterways, they are governed by the United States Coast Guard, which recently adopted new rules requiring all transportation workers on those waterways to submit to increased antiterrorism screening. The idea behind the rule, I imagine, was to prevent bad guys from getting a job at, say, the Port of Newark to sabotage a container ship filled with ammonium nitrate and turn Newark into a crater.

In the case of the mule drivers, the Coast Guard rules required them to get fancy biometric ID cards, presumably so an al Qaeda agent couldn't infiltrate their ranks and send a canal boat on a runaway ride on a fixed route at walking speed that doesn't really go anywhere. Needless to say, when news of this got out, people were pretty unhappy. When I learned that the tow path mules themselves were also required to wear custom-made bulletproof vests so they couldn't be hit by terrorist snipers, I had to look into things myself. The situation was rapidly resembling an Ali G interview where he asks a government terror expert, with a straight face, why nobody ever considered the threat of terrorists hijacking a train and driving it into the White House.

As it turns out, the whole thing was a fairly typical mixture of bureaucratic hassle and petty politics. The rules were never meant to apply to people like tow path mule drivers, who pose no threat to anybody. But that didn't stop state politicians from using the regulations to make the other party look bad for writing them up in the first place or for enforcing them once they became law. …

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