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Monday, December 06, 2010

Security Theatre in Profile

NRO dissects eight myths of flying security:

6. If we fail to search children and grandmothers, terrorists will simply enlist them in their plots.

Yes, terrorists would gleefully wire kids and grannies. And one Palestinian granny already has blown herself up, albeit not while flying or attempting to fly. But finding willing suicide-bomber elders in civilized countries is well-nigh impossible. Were it easy, it would have been done already. As for kids, instead of mauling them, our security screeners should scrutinize the elders traveling with them, as Israel does. Remember that every time a security screener searches a zero-risk flier, that screener is not available to search someone who may pose a real risk.

What prevents North Americans from adopting the generally sensible profiling methods of the Israelis? Reverse bigotry. In an attempt, as understandable as it is dangerous, to avoid repeating the historical injustices of malicious profiling, our governments have simply banned the method outright.

This, of course, fails to prevent actual profiling. Police and security officers are human beings and make assumptions, particularly in life and death situations, based on their personal beliefs and experiences. As you and I do everyday. A bureaucrat declaring that security officers are to be blind automatons only complicates the situation. The result is overcompensation, seen in the foolishness of random screening.

On a recent business trip to the US - thankfully before the junk groping got under way - I was profiled myself. Out of dozens of flyers, a trio of police officers - rather than TSA rent-a-dolts - stopped and asked me if I was carrying cash over $10,000, which must be reported. I was shocked for a moment. Why me? I hadn't done anything wrong. No, but I was the only one on the flight wearing a business suit, and my one carry on item was stuffed with three days worth of clothing. My unshaven appearance probably didn't help. It simply made sense to target the guy who looked like he would be carrying large sums of money, rather than the mother with three kids behind me.

While the officer was courteous, and I tried not to show my annoyance, it was an intelligent bit of profiling. The law being enforced was essentially unjust, a product of the misbegotten American War on Drugs, but part of life is knowing when to pick your battles. The cop knew hassling the mother of three was a waste of time, and might cause a scene, while questioning me in a civilized manner might actually lead to finding what he was looking to find. Making a fuss would get me nowhere, and in any case I was a guest in a foreign country, not a citizen. A Toronto cop asking me the same questioning, while walking down the street, would have gotten a somewhat less congenial response. 

Looking for tell-tale signs of danger, rather than screening at random, is the approach the Israelis have used for decades successfully. People flying from certain parts of the world are more dangerous than others. Single men who are agitated are of more concern than grandmothers on pilgrimage. 

Such methods can, obviously, be abused, which is why most civilized countries have constitutionally protected rights. The police can ask certain questions, and you can refuse to answer them in most circumstances. Body language is more important than verbal responses. An experienced officer can usually tell the difference between obstinate refusal and panicked evasion. If the official abuses his authority, there are ways of complaining and of peacefully resisting. 

Profiling is not a perfect method, and relies on probabilities rather than absolutes, yet that is how most of life is lived. The alternative is an ever intrusive government, demanding to know more and more about everyone, because it cannot rationally discriminate based on objective criteria: Behaviour, place of origin, destination, method of payment etc... Nor is the alternative simply targeting Muslims in general, which is only slightly less foolish than random targeting. There is simply no way of identifying someone's religious and political beliefs unless they choose to express them. 

For generations it's been a cliche of the Left that generals are always fighting the last war. In the war against Islamic Fundamentalism, it's the intellectuals that are fighting the last cultural war. This is not the North America of 1960 and our society is not, in the conventional sense, a bastion of racism needing expiation. It's a basically free, basically tolerant society engaged in a low level - but still dangerous - war against primitive religious fanaticism. Failing to use the tools at our disposal, in a intelligent and restrained manner, makes us both less secure and less free.


Posted by Richard Anderson on December 6, 2010 | Permalink


Looking at the big picture kind of reminds me of the fight over tobacco sales. Everyone knows tobacco is not healthy, and costs society a heavy price in health care costs, loss of productivity, and millions of premature deaths. Probem is, it's a profitable industry, and generates more tax revenue than most other consumable products. Our economy would collapse without this revenue, even though the social costs are hardly acceptable.

Everyone knows that muslims are the biggest threat to the airline industry. There are other potential terrorists, but self identified muslims are clearly driving the current state of affairs. Restricting air travel from certain countries, and of certain identifiable groups, would almost eliminate the need for such strict screening. It would also cripple the airline industry. It would be suicidal to toss such a large block of customers out the door, even though you'd probably increase the number of non-muslim passengers.

There you have it. Revenue is hobbling any real progress in keeping us safe. Just like the tobacco issue, it's going to take time get this under control. Ten years ago, if you walked into a bar or restaurant, it was like walking into a stinking fog. Now you have trouble even finding a smoker indoors. Perhaps we'll live to see the day that we can get onto an airplane without seeing people who make us wonder if we're going to arrive at our destination, in one piece.

Posted by: dp | 2010-12-06 8:19:02 AM

Trying to effectively screen for security with a PC monopoly is already a failure no matter what directives are given the screeners. Airlines should be allowed (compelled by the market, actually) to do their own thing, including contracting out the service. That alone, introduces widespread uncertainty to the potential self detonators. No airline wants to be the preferred carrier of the Jihad. Some airlines might become known as Islamophobic and risk Islamo-boycotting and that might make good business sense to some depending on their geography.

Next, individual airlines need to keep their tactics secure. You do not announce how you will screen, profile, scan etc. nor when or how often they change. (Anal probe?,"it must be Tuesday!") This throws another monkey wrench into the self detonators tool box.

The existing system (PC monopoly) is an invitation to circumvention and I know that if I were an Islamic whack-job, how I could cause maximum casualties with it. I may be a proudly Islamophobic, but if I can figure it out so can they.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-12-06 10:32:08 AM

Failing to use the tools at our disposal, in a intelligent and restrained manner, makes us both less secure and less free.
Posted by PUBLIUS on December 6, 2010

This is far too logical, which means it's incompatible with government thinking. For the hundreds of millions spent ensuring the passengers are not a danger to the flight, it still only takes one surface to air missle to bring down a plane or one pack of plastic explosives in a cargo bay suitcase. These people will take the path of least resistance and will always find a way to destroy, whether it's in the air or on the ground. Profiling is still the best weapon and political correctness is still the biggest barrier to common sense. Grannie gropping shows how stupid it can get.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-12-06 11:06:02 AM

Another excellent post! Any thinking person figured out long ago that the PC concept is pure balderdash. Take any of its tenets and one can find that reality is the very opposite. For example "human rights" are actually the elimination of human rights. Affirmative action (usually called diversity nowadays) which is supposed to eliminate discrimination is actually a government engineered system of discrimination. As the post points out "anti-profiling" is actually profiling but of the wrong groups and individuals.

The proof of the actual rot of the whole security and screening process by the state lies in the concern that an individual may be carrying over $10,000 instead of attempting to identify terrorists.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-12-06 12:01:49 PM

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