Offend few, benefit many

November 30, 2006|By Jens F. Laurson and George A. Pieler

Holiday traffic exposed lots of glitches in air travel security, as infrequent fliers confronted the ever-changing rules for carry-on baggage. Despite the United States-European Union agreement on provisional rules for passenger-data exchange, air travel security procedures have been up in the air since the August terror plot aimed at the United States and Britain.

Beverages and gels are out, except for 3-ounce travel sizes. Europe's belated decision to allow musicians to travel with their instruments cost renowned Jazz Messengers trumpeter Valery Ponomarev a broken arm in a tussle with Air India employees in Paris. Most recently, a group of imams were tossed from a US Airways flight due to passenger alarm at their loud praying, praising of Allah, and unexplained seat changing.

These are excellent reasons to step back and consider the obvious: We should look closely at the actual passengers actually boarding each flight. That, alas, leads us into the politically incorrect territory of "ethnic profiling."

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. When resources are limited, anything less than prudent discrimination brings waste, demoralization, decreased effectiveness and less security. If, even when lives are at stake, we find flying too burdensome without mascara, water bottles, too-big-books and instruments, the answer is common-sense discrimination.

We may wish to treat everyone the same, but the hard truth is we don't (privately or publicly) and shouldn't. For greater flying security, we know to look for Muslim, South Asian/Middle Eastern men. The July 2005 London bombings taught us that the passport matters less than ethnicity - which is just as well, because while passports can be forged, skin color and ethnic features cannot.

It is time we stop pretending that making Al Gore take his shoes off (as happened after 9/11) is normal - or that Mr. Gore should have to pretend to happily embrace that "egalitarian spirit." The true message of today's airport security measures is that "We are all terrorists now!"

Is it unfair to make men fitting the suicide-terrorist profile "suffer" through extra-strict security measures? Inconveniencing an entire ethnic class for the wrongdoing of a small minority would seem to offend Western values. The truth is, everyone suffers twice when passengers, no matter how low their risk profile, are searched, and everyone is delayed because everyone else is checked. If we simply searched, rigorously, those who constitute even a remote risk based on the history of terror attacks (with apologies, discounts, or whatever else might soften the blow of being singled out), even those customers would save time, not having to wait for everyone else to be frisked. Those US Airways imams would have been checked out early and either given a pass or been detained with much less fuss.

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 he has been selected for a more thorough security check. The person so selected might not like it, but the fact is, such checking makes him more secure, too.

Insurance companies use profiling; so does Israel. The history of Western governments profiling for bad motives is disgraceful and explains our trepidation. But we must differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable uses of profiling when civilization and lives are under attack.

Surely we would be outraged if, to prevent drunken-driving deaths, we required every citizen to attend classes against drunk driving. Yet it is imaginable that we might require all those who consume alcohol and have a driver's license to attend. Troubled times call for troubling measures: Let us choose those that inflict the least pain and inconvenience the fewest people.

Jens F. Laurson is editor in chief of the International Affairs Forum. E-mail: George A. Pieler is senior fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation and former vice president of the Columbia Society of International Law. E-mail:

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