(by Michael J. Totten, CommentaryMagazine.com) – I don’t want to be profiled at the airport. It has happened before, and I hate it. Volunteering for more isn’t what I feel like doing right now, but our airport security system is so half-baked and dysfunctional it may as well not even exist, and flying is about to become more miserable anyway. So rather than doubling down on grandma and micromanaging everyone on the plane, we might want to pay as much attention to people as to their luggage, especially military-aged males who make unusual and suspicious-looking travel arrangements. That’s what the Israelis do, and that’s why security agents take me into a room and interrogate me every time I pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Israeli airport security is the most thorough and strict in the world, as one might expect in one of the most terrorized countries. No plane leaving Ben-Gurion has ever been hijacked or otherwise attacked by a terrorist. The system works, yet you don’t have to take off your shoes in the security line, no one cares if you pack perfume from the duty-free in your carry-on, you can listen to your iPod 55 minutes before landing, and you don’t have to stand in front of invasive and expensive body-scanning machines.
The Israelis look for weapons, of course. You aren’t at all likely to sneak one on board. Just as important, though, the Israelis are on the look-out for terrorists. Who would you rather sit next to? A woman carrying shampoo and tweezers, or 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, even if he’s not carrying anything?
Israeli security agents interview everyone, and they subject travelers who fit certain profiles to additional scrutiny. I don’t know exactly what their criteria are, but I do know they aren’t just taking Arabs and Muslims aside. They take me aside, too, partly because of my gender and age but mostly because a huge percentage of my passport stamps are from countries with serious terrorist problems.
“Does anyone in Lebanon know you’re here?” they usually ask me. They’ve also asked if I’ve ever met with anyone in Hezbollah. I am not going to lie during an airport security interview, especially not when the answer can be easily found using Google. They know I’ve met with Hezbollah. That’s why my luggage gets hand-searched one sock at a time while elderly tourists from Florida skate through. I can’t say I enjoy this procedure, but I don’t take it personally, and it makes a lot more sense than letting me skate through while grandma’s luggage is hand-searched instead.
The United States need not and should not import the Israeli system. It’s labor intensive, slow, and at times incredibly aggravating. Americans wouldn’t put up with it, and it wouldn’t scale well. The one thing we can and should learn from the Israelis, though, is that we need to pay as much attention to who gets on airplanes as to what they’re bringing on board.
I don’t like being profiled, but the Israelis aren’t wrong for looking more closely at me than at, say, an 80-year-old black woman from Kansas or a 12-year-old kid from Japan. When I get on a plane in the United States, though, I often breeze past women decades older than me while they’re being frisked. Almost every single person in line knows it’s ridiculous. We don’t say anything, partly because we don’t want to get in trouble, and partly because it feels vaguely “fair.”
Maybe it is, but it’s no way to catch terrorists. And it’s not as if the only alternative is a separate policy for Arabs and Muslims. Racial and religious profiling won’t even work. Shoe bomber Richard Reid wouldn’t have been caught that way, and it’s probably safe to let a 90 year-old woman from Dubai through with minimal hassle.
Right now there appears to be no effort whatsoever to discriminate among passengers using any criteria, let alone racist criteria. “Pants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not have a passport, did not have any luggage, and bought a one-way ticket with cash. His name is in a database of possible terrorists. Any Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or all-American white boys from Iowa who fit that description should be stopped. Abdulmutallab wasn’t stopped. In 2004, though, Senator Ted Kennedy found himself with his name on the no-fly list.
The TSA’s whole mindset is wrong. Its agents confiscate things, even harmless things, and they apply additional scrutiny to things carried by people selected at random. If they were also tasked with looking for dangerous people, they would rightly ease up on grandmothers and senators, and they’d have a competently compiled list in the computer of those who are known to be dangerous. And if some kind of broad profiling means I’ll have to suffer the indignity of being frisked while the nun in line behind me does not, it’s no worse, really, than the embarrassment and contempt I’ll feel if the nun gets frisked instead.
Security agents will never find everything or everyone. It’s impossible. Abdulmutallab sewed a bomb into his underwear. Not even the most draconian new rules imaginable will allow agents to search inside anyone’s underwear. Patting down grandpa below the mid-thigh won’t do any good. Patting down Abdulmutallab below the mid-thigh wouldn’t have done any good either – all the more reason to start paying as much attention to people as to what they carry.
This article was first posted at CommentaryMagazine.com on December 31, 2009. Reprinted here January 14, 2010 for educational purposes only. Michael Totten is a reader-funded foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Visit his website at michaeltotten.com.
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