St. Petersburg Subway Attack's Lesson for the West
Monday's terror attack in St. Petersburg didn't elicit much institutional sympathy in the West -- unlike previous major attacks, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate weren't lit up in the colors of the victim country's flag. And yet it sends a troubling message to Western nations: Curbs on liberty and privacy in the name of security won't stop terrorism.
Russia is a country with some of the toughest, most illiberal anti-terror legislation in the world. Even expressing approval of terrorism on social networks is punishable by a seven-year prison term. The government doesn't ask people whether they want more protection in exchange for less liberty -- it just moves resolutely to exterminate what Russian law calls "extremism," a broad range of activities from sharing a Facebook post to street violence.
Russia is also a country with a massive police presence: According to the United Nations, it had the seventh-highest ratio of police officers to population in 2014; among major Western nations, only Spain has more cops per capita.
Visible security measures in the St. Petersburg subway, where an explosion killed at least 14 people and seriously injured 49 on Monday, are more extreme than in most Western subway systems. Following an attack in Moscow that killed 41 people in 2010, the government began beefing up security. Between 2012 and 2016, St. Petersburg spent at least 1.6 billion rubles ($28.3 million at the current exchange rate) on state-of-the-art video surveillance systems, Geiger counters, X-ray scanners and other technology. Metal detectors have been in operation for almost a year.
The terrorist who detonated the nail bomb inside a moving train between stations on Monday was not stopped by the detectors. A similar device was found at another station before it could explode.
As for video surveillance, it worked fine. Soon after the attack, one of Russia's national TV networks, REN-TV, broadcast images of the "suspected terrorist" -- a bearded man wearing black clothes and a round hat, the prototypical strict Muslim. The images spread across the social networks with the kind of comments one could expect. Later, the man walked into a police station in St. Petersburg to explain it wasn't him; he'd seen the images, too.
Police haven't officially named a suspect yet, but various reports are pointing to a male suicide bomber who is from one of the Central Asian states, known as a prime recruiting ground for ISIS. There also have been reports that the group that planned the attack had been under police surveillance but security forces failed to move fast enough to prevent the first explosion.
Russia's security apparatus is far from incompetent or inefficient. It has strong traditions and is well-trained and equipped. The security budget is usually the last to be cut when the government is struggling to make ends meet. It's also part of a government riddled with corruption. The firm that made and supplied metal detectors to the St. Petersburg subway was the only participant in the procurement tender. It had been certified for the purpose by the FSB domestic intelligence service despite complaints about its products. And, as it placed the order, the subway system knew it didn't have enough security personnel to properly man the machines. That's just one of the places where total security dreams meet reality: It's nearly impossible to vet every potential threat on a subway system as large as St. Petersburg's, which handles more passengers than all but three European cities.
The attack, however, occurred in the middle of the day, when traffic was light (which explains the relatively low casualty count), and the terrorist or terrorists would have been easier to spot and stop -- and, failing that, positively identified much sooner.
Recent European research shows that people will tolerate a certain level of visible security -- such as CCTV cameras, sniffer dogs and even short delays to travel -- but resist tougher measures such as those taken in Russia. People who go into the Moscow and St. Petersburg subway with big backpacks or suitcases are often stopped and checked. And metal detectors are nothing if not the "airport-style screening" that is so loathed. There's plenty of informal ethnic profiling going on, too, as evidenced by the case of the man whose image was circulated by REN-TV. But danger to passengers remains.
The terror attack will set off investigations into how the equipment worked and how it was manned. Past experience shows that security measures will be tightened for a few days, perhaps weeks, and plans will be worked out for the permanent deployment of more technology and staff. President Vladimir Putin will also have a justification for further tightening the screws ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Kremlin will also tell the world that it should be treated as a partner in fighting global terrorism, not an adversary. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already made a statement to that effect. There will be -- and there already is some -- plenty of speculation about a Kremlin role in the attack, which took place after the first nationwide anti-Putin protests in five years. And some will say Russia is getting its comeuppance for its ruthless military campaign in Syria.
All of that, however, is the typical post-attack white noise that matters less to those of us who take the subway every day. What we should realize is that "security versus liberty" is a false dichotomy. Politicians who try to sell it to us are often more interested in taking away our freedom than in making us safer. Russians have acquiesced in this, but the St. Petersburg attack shows they got little in return for the liberty they gave up. Westerners should be mindful of that when the next attack prompts the drafting of tougher laws or increased spending on intrusive security.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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