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The trouble with using profiling to secure our airports isn't that it's racist or discriminatory. The trouble is that it doesn't work.

Published June 16, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

The offending passage went like this: "That is, at the cost of turning our airports into fortresses, and our nation into a full-blown police state -- which Israel certainly is."

Police state. Those two simple words summoned up a torrent of angry e-mails, many of them from Israeli citizens. Bad enough that the Israeli stamp in my passport forbids me passage into some of the places I most badly wish to visit -- Libya and Oman among them -- now the Israelis themselves will probably ban me from reentry on the grounds of slander.

It was, I fully concede, a terrible choice of words (from a guy who has been to Burma, no less). "Police state" is one of those terms used with less and less discretion nowadays, much like certain other words, more emotional than political, that code and color the patois of geopolitics -- "terrorism" and "heroes" are two others that jump to mind. For this very reason, I owed it to readers to more carefully consider the term's definition and implications.

"A police state is an authoritarian state which uses the police, especially secret police, to maintain and enforce political power, often through violent or arbitrary means," explains Wikipedia. "In a police state, the police are not subject to the rule of law and there is no meaningful distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive." Of course, it's with shameless self-interest that I defer to the expertise of Wikipedia rather than some other source. The more august Oxford English Dictionary gives it a bit more slack: "A state regulated by means of a national police force having secret supervision and control of the activities of citizens."

Either way, say what you will of the nation's policies and its well-armed apparatus of self-preservation, that's not Israel. "Security state" or "militarized state" would have been more accurate, and would better reflect the point I was trying to make.

I had already ticked off a number of readers with my observations from the Allenby Bridge border crossing. There, noting a large crowd of Palestinians corralled in a waiting area, as American tourists were whisked through, I described "ethnic profiling at its most unabashed."

"Is there not every reason to submit Palestinian Arabs to special screening?" protests Norm Solanch, of Bridgeport, Conn. "Aren't they the people who have sworn to wipe Israel off the face of the earth? Do they not dispatch suicide bombers into Israel?"

Indeed they do, and my statement was merely an observation. It wasn't intended to solicit undeserved sympathy for anyone. Unabashed profiling, in this case, may indeed be a proper and effective tool. We can argue all day about the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but one can hardly blame the Israelis for subjecting certain people to inconvenient scrutiny. That is not, however, a license to harass. Our hotel keeper in Madaba, Jordan, who is married to a Palestinian woman, told us wrenching stories of how his wife and small child were often left to languish at the border for up to 12 hours.

And none of this, I must carefully point out, is an endorsement of racial or ethnic profiling at airports in the United States. This ugly can of worms has been vetted previously in this column, but it's worth a revisit. Contrary to what some would have you believe, land crossings in the Middle East and air terminals in the United States are very different things facing very different challenges. Yes, the Sept. 11 skyjackers -- along with many around the globe who, we assume, desire to emulate them -- were, without exception, young Arab males. But that, however illogical it first seems, in no way suggests that obsessing over dark skin and Saudi passports is an efficient way to root out saboteurs. On the contrary.

The 19 skyjackers succeeded not because we failed to flag them -- in fact several of the cabal, including Mohammed Atta, were singled out by the CAPPS-1 (for computer-assisted passenger prescreening system) program then in place -- but because they knowingly anticipated what levels of resistance they would face, from previously gathered intelligence available to check-in staff, and, most important, physical resistance (or lack thereof) from passengers and crew aboard the four doomed Boeings. The attackers took advantage of the skyjack paradigm as it existed at the time. They did not exploit a loophole in airport security; they exploited a loophole in our mind-set and expectations. And whatever can be said of terrorists, they're generally not stupid; the more narrowly we profile, the easier the system becomes to skirt. Routine, as any security or antiterror expert will tell you, is weakness. The trouble with profiling isn't necessarily that it's racist or discriminatory. The trouble is that it doesn't work.

Which data points are we supposed to use? Formulating some religious-ethnic template becomes extremely unreliable. Most of the world's Muslims aren't Arabs. Not all Arabs are Muslims. Nearly half of Lebanon is Christian. Iranians aren't Arabs. Neither are Turks. Plenty of Syrians have red hair and green eyes. The Bali bombers weren't Middle Eastern, they were Asian. And the blabbermouth reactionaries who scream for ethnic profiling were mum when USA Today reported that al-Qaida was actively recruiting white Chechens.

Michael Smerconish, a popular conservative columnist, author and talk-show host based in Philadelphia, has long been a proponent of ethnic profiling, so much so that he wrote a book on the topic: "Flying Blind -- How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post-9/11." The 12-word title pretty much tells you everything you need to know. Smerconish invited me on his radio show a couple of times for sparring, though he devoted considerably more airtime to a fellow fear merchant, Annie Jacobsen. During one interview with Jacobsen, whose place in the right-wing limelight is owed to little more than an irritable imagination, Smerconish actually declared her a "victim of terrorism," which is about the most inexcusable stretch of the facts (other than calling Israel a police state) I've ever encountered in political discourse.

I was willing to give his tome (the jacket includes flattering blurbs from Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity) a fighting chance, but his credibility starts to tailspin around Page 16 of the introduction. There, he decides to buttress his cause by including a sarcastic, multiple-choice quiz borrowed from a popular chain e-mail. The gag test has circulated in cyberspace for many months, in slightly different variants. It goes like this:

  • On 9/11/01, four airliners were hijacked and destroyed by:

    a. Bugs Bunny
    b. The Supreme Court of Florida
    c. Mr. Bean
    d. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

  • In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was taken over by:

    a. Norwegians from Ballard
    b. Elvis
    c. A tour bus full of 80-year-old women
    d. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

  • In 2002, reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by:

    a. Bonnie and Clyde
    b. Captain Kangaroo
    c. Billy Graham
    d. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    And so on for several more questions. I've picked the above examples out of order, but you get the idea. The answer, in all cases, is C. I mean D. (As a New Englander, I was stymied by the "Norwegians from Ballard" reference. You can Google it to some satisfaction, but still it's a weird attempt at humor.)

    The quiz is a wonderful apples-and-oranges trap. First, it wants the guesser to believe that all acts of terror -- and, in this context, all serious air crimes -- are those committed by Islamic extremists, which isn't the case at all. And it makes a tenuous connection between the threats facing American airports and those facing, for example, embassies and newspaper reporters in hostile Muslim countries. What Daniel Pearl faced in Pakistan (a non-Arab nation, mind you) in 2002, is not the same set of threats facing passengers at the airport in Dayton, Ohio.

    For more intelligent reading, I highly recommend Bruce Schneier's "Beyond Fear -- Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." Again, the title says it all. Among his many cogent arguments, Schneier smartly maintains that the most valuable front-line defense against terror is not a one-dimensional preoccupation with skin color. He advocates a mix of random screening and a cadre of well-trained, experienced professionals, skilled in the art of behavioral profiling.

    The Transportation Security Administration, which isn't always as daft as it frequently seems, has begun training staff at several major airports in the finer points of behavioral pattern recognition. It's a slippery slope, some will argue, from behavioral profiling, which scans airport passengers for such telltale signs of criminal intent as "nervousness," to the more politically incorrect variety, but it's worth noting that Israel's airports, including the notoriously secure Ben Gurion International, have used it for many years. Israel appears to understand that its land crossings demand one set of protocols, its airports another.

    In the meantime, here's a more useful quiz:

  • In 1985, Air India Flight 182 was blown up over the Atlantic by:

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. Bill O'Reilly
    c. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
    d. Indian Sikh extremists, in retaliation for the Indian Army's attack on the Golden Temple shrine in Amritsar

  • In 1986, who attempted to smuggle three pounds of explosives onto an El Al jetliner bound from London to Tel Aviv?

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. Michael Smerconish
    c. Bob Mould
    d. A pregnant Irishwoman named Anne Murphy

  • In 1962, in the first-ever successful sabotage of a commercial jet, a Continental Airlines 707 was blown up with dynamite over Missouri by:

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. Ann Coulter
    c. Henry Rollins
    d. Thomas Doty, a 34-year-old American passenger, as part of an insurance scam

  • In 1994, who nearly succeeding in skyjacking a DC-10 and crashing it into the Federal Express Corp. headquarters?

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. Michelle Malkin
    c. Charlie Rose
    d. Auburn Calloway, an off-duty FedEx employee and resident of Memphis, Tenn.

  • In 1974, who stormed a Delta Air Lines DC-9 at Baltimore-Washington Airport, intending to crash it into the White House, and shot both pilots?

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. Joe Scarborough
    c. Spalding Gray
    d. Samuel Byck, an unemployed tire salesman from Philadelphia

    The answer, in all cases, is D.


    Re: Conspiracy nation

    Conspiracy theories and their proponents often bear many of the hallmarks of the uglier flavors of spirituality: an opportunity to be initiated in a mysterious truth, combined with a chance to lay blame and praise at the feet of unknown, idolized (whether loved or hated) forces that remain unseen. To insist that hijacked airliners were whisked away to quarters unknown, or that Kennedy was taken out by LBJ or the Mob or Cubans or some coalition thereof, or that Elvis is alive and flipping burgers in St. Paul, is to claim the hidden truth of the universe, the secret explanation, and the ability to name some entity on which to blame all the whims of fate. And in the folds of such beliefs, one can mask another agenda. Sounds a lot like radical religion to me.

    -- Michael Williams

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  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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