The Case for Profiling

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CHRIS O'MEARA/AP

A Florida National Guardsman looks on as a security agent checks passengers

The latest airport-security scandal is the groping of female flight attendants and passengers during patdowns. Not to worry. The Transportation Security Administration chief is right on it. "We're going to fix that right away," he said recently, announcing the appointment of an ombudsman.

A nice bureaucratic Band-Aid. No one, however, asks the obvious question: Why are we patting down flight attendants in the first place? Why, for that matter, are we conducting body searches of any female passengers?

Random passenger checks at airports are completely useless. We've all been there in the waiting lounge, rolling our eyes in disbelief as the 80-year-old Irish nun, the Hispanic mother of two, the Japanese-American businessman, the House committee chairman with the titanium hip are randomly chosen and subjected to head-to-toe searching for...what?

Not for security--these people are hardly candidates for suicide terrorism--but for political correctness. We are engaged in a daily and ostentatious rehearsal of the officially sanctioned proposition that suicide terrorists come from anywhere, without regard to gender, ethnicity, age or religious affiliation.

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That is not true, and we know it. Random searches are a ridiculous charade, a charade that not only gives a false sense of security but, in fact, diminishes security because it wastes so much time and effort on people who are obviously no threat.

Everyone now has his nail-clipper, tweezers or X-rayed-shoe story. Can-you-top-this tales of luggage and body searches have become a staple of cocktail chatter. Yet citizens would willingly subject themselves to delay, inconvenience and even indignity if they felt what they were undergoing was actually improving airport security. Since Sept. 11, subjecting oneself to security indignities has been a civic duty. But this has become a parody of civic duty. Random searches are being done purely to defend against the charge of racial profiling.

Imagine that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had not been acting alone but had instead been part of a vast right-wing, antigovernment, terrorist militia with an ideology, a network and a commitment to carrying out attacks throughout America. Would there have been any objection to singling out young white men for special scrutiny at airports and other public places? Of course not. And if instead, in response to the threat posed by the McVeigh Underground, airport security began pulling young black men or elderly Asian women out of airport lines for full-body searches, would we not all loudly say that this is an outrage and an absurdity?

As it happens, the suicide bombers who attacked us on Sept. 11 were not McVeigh Underground. They were al-Qaeda: young, Islamic, Arab and male. That is not a stereotype. That is a fact. And there is no hiding from it, as there is no hiding from the next al-Qaeda suicide bomber. He has to be found and stopped. And you don't find him by strip searching female flight attendants or 80-year-old Irish nuns.

This is not to say your plane could not be brought down by a suicide bomber of another sort. It could. It could also be brought down by a meteorite. Or by a Stinger missile fired by Vermont dairymen in armed rebellion. These are all possible. But because they are rather improbable, we do not alter our daily lives to defend against the possibility.

True, shoe bomber Richard Reid, while young and Islamic and male, was not Arab. No system will catch everyone. But our current system is designed to catch no one because we are spending 90% of our time scrutinizing people everyone knows are no threat. Jesse Jackson once famously lamented how he felt when he would "walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery--then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Jackson is no racist. He was not passing judgment on his own ethnicity. He was simply reacting to probabilities. He would rather not. We all would rather not make any calculations based on ethnicity, religion, gender or physical characteristics--except that on airplanes our lives are at stake.

The pool of suicide bombers is not large. To pretend that it is universal is absurd. Airport security is not permitted to "racially" profile, but every passenger--white or black, male or female, Muslim or Christian--does. We scan the waiting room, scrutinizing other passengers not just for nervousness and shiftiness but also for the demographic characteristics of al-Qaeda. We do it privately. We do it quietly. But we do it. Airport officials, however, may not. This is crazy. So crazy that it is only a matter of time before the public finally demands that our first priority be real security, not political appearances--and puts an end to this charade.