Ben-Gurion Security and the TSA

(See update below)

There are a fair number of interesting comments that follow my post this morning on about security at Ben-Gurion airport, and I've received a fair number of harsh e-mails about it as well, mainly along these lines:

You can think it's funny to advocate for ethnic profiling in American airports, but as an Arab who has traveled through the Tel Aviv airport, I can tell you that it's a disgusting, racist process targeting an imaginary threat, in which Arabs are considered terrorists until proven otherwise.

First, everyone traveling through Ben-Gurion is considered to be a terrorist until proven otherwise. Second, I don't argue for ethnic or racial profiling in American airports, and I've never argued for such practices. I argue for profiling, period. Profiling would allow the TSA to get a much better handle on who is getting on American airplanes, and why they're getting on. The questioning that passengers should undergo would go a long way to weeding out potential threats. I oppose racial or ethnic profiling not only on ethical grounds, but practical grounds as well. If the TSA were only looking critically at Arab passengers, for instance, it would miss many other sorts of threats (including, by the way, people of different races and nationalities who have converted to Islam, as in the case of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid).

In Israel, the situation is a little different. Israel is in open conflict with several Muslim terror groups, many with active and large memberships in territory controlled by Israel. It's hard to argue with Israeli security when it says that the main threats to El Al and other airlines flying out of Israel come from these Muslim terror groups. It is also absurd to argue that the threat is "imaginary." A small but not inconsequential number of Muslims, Arab and otherwise, are actively trying to kill Jews, and have been actively trying to kill Jews for quite a while. (Today probably isn't the best day to complain about this "imaginary threat," because it is the 20th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 29 people -- an Iranian-sponsored operation, by all accounts -- and also is a day on which we learned of a plot to attack a Milan synagogue.)

Of course, Israeli airport security doesn't merely scrutinize Muslim travelers. In fact, based on the profiles in operation at Ben-Gurion, single European and American women traveling alone are most often singled out for special treatment, albeit because of a frightening precedent involving a Jordanian, Nizar Hindawi, who tried to place his unknowing (and pregnant) Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight out of London with a bomb in her carry-on luggage. And there are plenty of stories of Jews being scrutinized at Ben-Gurion for reasons both obvious and entirely obscure. What should happen at Ben-Gurion is that airport security should make every effort to pass through Arabs and Muslims without incident, and be particularly careful not to rely on ethnic profiling as a primary tool in the effort to protect passengers from a very real threat.

UPDATE: I've gotten a bunch of interesting letters (and a kind of nutty comments section right now)  which I will post as we go on, but this one is particularly relevant, from a former Ben-Gurion security screener:

I've worked as a security screener for Israel after my army service. I would say that we don't actually engage in ethnic profiling as you describe it, because ethnic profiling sounds like we simply take someone with an Arab appearance or Muslim name and give them extra security. This is not true. Most Arab Israelis are passed through the system the way Jewish Israelis are passed through the system. We have a large number of characteristics we look for in a passenger, and each one would alert our alarm bells. Very few of them have to do only with a person's ethnicity. In fact, since the start of the flotilla period, young American Jews, traveling alone into Israel, are considered, at least to me, more suspicious than, say an Arab citizen leaving Israel, because we've seen cases of American Jews using their Jewish status to help the flotilla people. You are right to say that one type of person who raises more suspicions is a single white woman traveling alone.
 
Of course it is unpleasant for people to go through security. But the only reason we do this is to prevent terrorists from murdering airline passengers.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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