TCS Daily

Mysteries of the Air

By Jens F. Laurson & George A. Pieler - February 1, 2010 12:00 AM

On February 7, the Airport Security-2010 conference convenes in Dubai. Featured on the program are forums and workshops on technology, overuse of technology, and even "Middle East criminals." Nothing about Islamist extremism, though.

The 2009 holiday season exposed this weakest links in air travel security. The near-disaster of Flight 253—thank God for wardrobe malfunction—betrayed more than just a "systemic" problem, as President Obama put it. It unveiled a deep-seated cultural fear of confronting the hard realities of 21st century Islamist terror. Until that fear is overcome, air travelers will probably be less than secure, and definitely, massively, inconvenienced.

The shoe bomber robbed us of our footwear, which President Obama finds amusing. Pushing high-speed trains in Tampa, he said "those things are fast, they are smooth. You don't have to take off your shoes." Then, foiled plots took away standard-size gels and beverages. Now we can expect routine pat-downs and electronic strip-searches, while experts argue whether technology alone, such full-body scanners, can or cannot detect the PETN explosive concealed in Mr. Abdulmutallab's intimate garments. Inconvenience and anxiety ratchet up a few more notches, with absolutely no assurance risk is being reduced, except the politicians' risk of being accused of not having done something—anything—about potential, unforeseen dangers. We are, however, protected from possible assaults by Joan Rivers while Halle Berry gets a special security-avoiding escort: O Canada!

All this would be funny if it were funny. The truth is rather less funny—we have no more excuses for avoiding the obvious. We should look closely at the actual passengers actually boarding each flight. That, alas, leads us into the politically incorrect territory of "profiling." Israel has used profiling with complete success for many years, and 'ethnic' is only one part of the picture, which includes on-site behavior, flight plans, cash payments, and purchase of one-way tickets. Most, perhaps all of these measures, could be implemented in the US without trampling on rights we are rightfully loath to give up. Yet they were studiously ignored at every critical point in the progress of the underwear bomber. It takes a common mind-set for so many people, in Ghana, Yemen, Nigeria, Holland, and the US, to make the same mistake at the same time.

We shy away from any form of "discrimination," yet to discriminate is value neutral: We do it every day in our choices of food, friends, jobs. Government discriminates in deciding what laws and regulations to implement. Security agencies discriminate, focusing their efforts where the yield is greatest. If, even when lives are at stake, we find flying too burdensome without water bottles, bathroom breaks, and pulp novels, the answer is common-sense discrimination.

We may wish to treat everyone the same, but the hard truth is we don't and shouldn't. For greater flying security, we know to give special scrutiny to Muslim men, and particularly those from the developing world. Nationality, the focus of one of President Obama's new heightened security measures, is not enough and may be a distraction in some cases. Neither is ethnicity or economic background. But Islamist, or extreme religious, affiliations, must at least be part of the official equation for deciding who we watch most closely. Discriminating surveys of passengers and their background by highly trained professionals is not carte blanche for a new wave of racism, it's a looming reality sadly made necessary.

Most of all, it is time we stop pretending that making Brian Williams go through a pat-down at Reagan National makes us safer, or that Mr. Williams should have to pretend to happily embrace that "egalitarian spirit" (he doesn't). The true message of today's airport security measures is that "We are all terrorists now!"

It may seem unfair to make passengers fitting the suicide-terrorist profile suffer the extra-strict security measures, since inconveniencing any class of people for the wrongdoing of a tiny minority would normally, rightly offend Western values. But nothing is normal now. Indeed everyone suffers twice when all passengers, regardless of risk profile, are searched, and everyone is delayed. If we simply searched, rigorously, those who constitute a plausible if remote risk based on the history of terror (with apologies, discounts, or whatever else might soften the blow of being singled out), even those risk-profiled customers would save time, not having to wait for everyone to be frisked.

No one welcomes the implicit accusation of wrongdoing, especially when people to one's left and right do not suffer that indignity. Yet grievances of those designated for greater scrutiny must be weighed against the universal grievance of all travelers. No reasonable passenger today should fail to understand why they receive a more thorough security check. Indeed such checking makes them more secure, too, if that's any consolation. We learn to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable uses of profiling when civilization and lives are under attack.

We don't, to prevent drunken-driving deaths, demand every citizen attend classes against drunk driving. Yet we might require all those with a history of DUI who to attend, especially in communities with an acute problem. Troubled times call for troubling measures: Let us choose those that inflict the least pain and inconvenience on the fewest and most logical people.

Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is an attorney and former vice president of the Columbia Society of International Law.

1 Comment

Why screening by government?
The airlines have a powerful incentive to provide safe flights, they have a powerful incentive to not anger their customers. The government's incentive to provide safe flights is dubious (each failure makes another power grab more likely) and it has no incentive not to anger the flyers. It's obvious who should be doing the screening.

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