THOUGH AL GORE has his faults, not even his most unsparing critic thinks he might take it into his head to hijack an airplane. But that didn't stop airport screeners from pulling him out of line as he was preparing to board a flight from Washington to Milwaukee last week and running him through the full "security" check: body scanned, briefcase rifled, underwear pawed through. And it didn't stop them from doing it to him again the next day when he flew to New York.
And so the 45th vice president of the United States now has something in common with arthritic grandmothers, diaper-wearing 2-year-olds, members of Congress, and even the 44th vice president, Dan Quayle: All have been subjected to pointless airport searches that had nothing to do with security and everything to do with political correctness.
It's not a very exclusive club. I am by no means a frequent flyer, yet I've gotten the treatment four times since Sept. 11. Once I was kept standing at the Jetway door for more than 15 minutes because the screener didn't have an electronic wand and had to wait for someone to bring one to her. I stood there making polite small talk until the wand arrived and I could be scanned. I'm sure a real terrorist, one with a weapon hidden under his clothes, would have done the same.
"My understanding is he was randomly selected both times," Gore's aide, Jano Cabrera, told a reporter. "He was more than happy, as all Americans are in these troubled times, to cooperate."
But the only ones who should be happy about this system are terrorists. Every minute spent patting down Al Gore or an elderly man in a wheelchair is a minute not spent focusing attention on a passenger who has a higher likelihood of actually being a hijacker. A passenger named Abdullah, say, who is 24 years old and a citizen of Saudi Arabia.
Ah, but singling out Abdullah for special attention would amount to ethnic profiling, and ethnic profiling is banned. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is adamant on the point. Asked on "Sixty Minutes" whether he thought "a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach, Fla." should receive the same scrutiny as "a Muslim young man from Jersey City," he answered at once, "I would hope so."
And what Mineta hopes, his agency commands. "Do not subject persons or their property to inspection, search, and/or detention solely because they appear to be Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and/or Muslim," Transportation Department regulations decree. "Ask yourself, 'But for this person's perceived race, ethnic heritage, or religious orientation, would I have subjected this individual to additional safety or security scrutiny?'" If the answer is no, it is illegal to search him.
As an example of contemporary political sensitivity, this is hard to improve on. As a technique for stopping hijackers, it is demented. The Sept. 11 terrorists were not a random sample of population types. They were all young men, they were all Arab, they were all radical Islamists, and they were all from the Middle East. To pretend that sex, ethnicity, religion, and national origin are irrelevant to stopping terrorists is to leave the door open to another calamity.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that any particular passenger from the Middle East will prove to be a terrorist. But as Stuart Taylor Jr. points out: "If you make the plausible assumptions that Al Qaeda terrorists are at least 100 times as likely to be from the Middle East as to be native-born Americans and that fewer than 5 percent of all passengers on domestic flights are Middle Eastern men, it would follow that a randomly chosen Middle Eastern male passenger is roughly 2,000 times as likely to be an Al Qaeda terrorist as a randomly chosen native-born American. It is crazy to ignore such odds."
The government doesn't bar all profiling. Airlines are allowed to flag for scrutiny passengers who engage in certain behaviors, such as purchasing a one-way ticket or paying for it with cash. But that is hardly going to stop an intelligent hijacker, even one bent on a suicide attack. He will simply buy a round-trip ticket and charge it to a credit card. To be effective, profiling must take account of traits that are not so easy to disguise: physical appearance, accent, place of birth.
US airports have made a massive investment in security since Sept. 11. But the emphasis remains exactly where it was before the attacks: on things. Is there a gun or knife in your carry-on? Does your luggage contain an explosive? Do your shoes look odd?
But things don't hijack planes; terrorists do. And terrorists can be detected only by studying people. That means asking questions more probing than "Did you pack your suitcase yourself?" It means not wasting time frisking travelers who are clearly harmless. And it means reversing the ban on ethnic profiling. Granted, it may make a lot of us uncomfortable to know that some passengers are drawing special scrutiny just because they look or sound Arab. But some discomfort is a price worth paying to prevent another Sept. 11. Isn't it?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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