Profiles in Stupidity
Summer has finally arrived in New England, and with it—finally—has arrived the warm and fair weather missing from a damp and chilly spring. Alas, the good weather has only made worse the febrile notions of Jeff Jacoby, the house conservative of the Boston Globe.
Jacoby has cast off the conservative strictures of law and order for a bizarre and insipid form of anarchy. For him, the protections embodied in the Constitution are now merely inconveniences. In a recent op-ed piece, Jacoby argues that ethnic profiling is the only way to prevent future terrorists from hijacking airplanes. His impetus was the realization that travelers are randomly subject to extra scrutiny of their persons and baggage. He noted that Al Gore was subject to such inspection on successive days, and that he had undergone four inspections himself in recent months.
Jacoby correctly points out that the terrorists directly responsible for the 11 September attacks were all citizens of Middle Eastern countries, with most of them citizens of Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, the problems with his position are legion.
The first problem is one of practicality. There is much evidence that some of the 11 September hijackers had forged passports and identity papers. It is certainly possible, if not probable, that any future hijackers would obscure their ethnic and national identities. Furthermore, targeting passengers because they are Muslim is far from easy, even if it were legal. How on earth is an airline supposed to find out the religious identity of almost any passenger? An Arabic surname does not mean that one is Muslim, let alone fundamentalist, let alone dangerous.
The second problem is borne out of experience. In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, exactly one person has tried to blow up or hijack an American airliner once on board: Richard Reid, the British man who tried to ignite explosives contained in his shoes during a flight in December. He was not a citizen of a Middle Eastern country, and was not of Middle Eastern descent. Alert passengers and crew decided that Reid was up to no good and detained him. Putting Middle Eastern men under extra scrutiny, as Jacoby suggests, would have done nothing to prevent this malefactor.
The third problem is one of strategy. Jacoby assumes that al-Qaeda is made up of men from the Middle East. He also assumes that al-Qaeda is the only organization capable of hijacking or bombing an airplane. Even John Ashcroft has shown the first assumption to be poppycock. Among the men recently detained by the Bush administration as "illegal combatants" is Jose Padilla, an American citizen of Puerto Rican descent. If the United States were to pay special attention to men of Middle Eastern descent, surely any follow-up attack by al-Qaeda would use its recruits from other parts of the world. Furthermore, terrorists from other organizations who might hijack airplanes come in all races and nationalities.
A fourth problem is one of legality. Jacoby would undo decades of progress in eliminating discrimination from transportation. In return, he would get a misplaced sense of security. I am lucky to be young enough not to remember the days when only by having the right skin color could one receive proper treatment on buses, trains, airplanes, hotels, or restaurants in much of the United States. The 1950s and 1960s put an end to institutionalized discrimination in this and many other aspects of American society. Legislation and judicial action have correctly ensured that airlines and other purveyors of public accommodations cannot treat some customers differently simply because of their skin color or national origin.
A final problem is one of consistency. After the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on 23 May 1995 in Oklahoma City, the federal government did not engage in a nationwide profiling of "likely terrorists" based on racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. The government did not engage in—and conservatives like Jacoby did not call for—screening of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants with vaguely anti-governmental views. There was not even a call for screening of young, white, angry Anglo-Saxon Protestants named Timothy who possessed training in chemistry and had traveled to Arizona in the spring of 1995.* Of course, McVeigh was pale and American, and the hijackers were not.
Now that a small group of zealots have proven to be dangerous, Jacoby would willingly unravel some of the protections that Americans enjoy against their government. In return, he would enjoy no real benefit. Truly random inspections will eliminate the blind spots that racial and ethnic profiling would develop. If we truly believe that al-Qaeda or similar groups are capable of striking again, we should believe them to be capable of changing their mode of attack just a little bit. Whether enough travelers are subject to the extra searches to effectively deter hijackers is a valid question, one that Jacoby does not address. But by being fair about airport screening, the federal government is more than just politically correct: it's tactically smart.
*I would, of course, be guilty as charged.
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