Politically Incorrect Profiling: A Matter of Life or Death

National origin should be a factor in deciding which airline passengers are singled out for thorough searches

What would happen if another 19 well-trained Al Qaeda terrorists, this time with 19 bombs in their bags, tried to board 19 airliners over the next 19 months? Many would probably succeed, blowing up lots of planes and thousands of people, if the forces of head-in-the-sand political correctness prevail—as they did before September 11—in blocking use of national origin as a factor in deciding which passengers' bags to search with extra care.

But a well-designed profiling system might well catch all 19. Such a system would not be race-based; indeed, most Arab-Americans would not fit the profile. It would factor in suspicious behavior, along with national origin, gender, and age. It could spread the burden by selecting at least one white (or black, or Asian) passenger to be searched for every Middle Easterner so selected. And it should be done politely and respectfully.

We have no good alternative. For the foreseeable future, the shortage of high-tech bomb-detection machines and the long delays required to search luggage by hand will make it impossible to effectively screen more than a small percentage of checked bags. The only real protection is to make national origin a key factor in choosing those bags. Otherwise, federalizing airport security and confiscating toenail clippers will be futile gestures.

I revisit this issue in part because research since my September 22 column reinforces my conviction that national-origin profiling may be the only way (in the short term) to avoid hundreds or thousands of deaths. At the same time, critics have persuaded me that the "racial" profiling of "Arab-looking" people that I previously advocated would be less effective than profiling based on apparent origin in any of the nations known to be exporters of anti-American terrorism—not only nations in the Arab world, but also most, or all, of the nations in the Muslim world. Millions of Arab-Americans would not fit the profile because their American roots would be apparent—from their accents and speech patterns—to trained security screeners.

We have heard a great deal about the hurt feelings of Middle Eastern passengers who have been searched and (in some cases) rudely treated on flights or unjustifiably ejected from airliners. We have heard far less about the dangers of not searching. The reason is that "large and important parts of the American news media practice a virulent form of political correctness that is indistinguishable from censorship," in the words of Richard Cohen, the mostly liberal Washington Post columnist.

Opponents of national-origin profiling claim it would be more effective to focus solely on suspicious behavior. They are wrong. Competent terrorists know how to avoid the suspicious-behavior trap. They are not likely to buy one-way tickets the next time. Or to pay in cash. Or to fly from Afghanistan to Pakistan to New York. Or to hang around airport security checkpoints with video cameras. These people are not stupid.

The hardest thing to hide if you are an Islamic terrorist is your Islamic-world origin, as evinced by speech patterns, facial characteristics, skin color, or (to a lesser extent) dress and travel documents. Sure, there is always the risk that the next attack will come from another homegrown Timothy McVeigh, or a Swedish Girl Scout, or (more likely) a mush-headed leftist French coed recruited by Al Qaeda. But there are a lot more Islamic terrorists than there are Timothy McVeighs. And not many people from outside the Islamic world appear eager to volunteer for suicide missions. Many Arab-Americans—if not their purported leaders—now seem to understand this. In a Detroit Free Press poll of 527 local Arab-Americans, 61 percent supported extra scrutiny of people with Middle Eastern features or accents.

Political pressure from Arab-American and liberal groups spurred the Clinton and Bush Administrations to bar use of national origin as a profiling component before September 11. In 1996, President Clinton put Vice President Al Gore in charge of a White House commission to recommend improvements in airliner security. But from the start, according to The Boston Globe, "debate over the program focused on civil liberties, not effectiveness." The Gore commission declared, "No profile should contain or be based on ... race, religion, or national origin." Accordingly, the Federal Aviation Administration, in unveiling its Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening program, stressed that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division—an ultraliberal bastion—had certified that the CAPS criteria "do not consider passengers' race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, or gender," or even "names or modes of dress." That left few criteria for flagging possible terrorists other than reservation histories—as any competent terrorist would have known.

The FAA bent even further to avoid offending hypersensitive passengers by restricting CAPS to the checked baggage—not the carry-ons or persons—of passengers whose papers the computers flagged as suspicious. European nations and Israel, by contrast, have long subjected those who fit their profiles to questioning and manual searches. And Israel's El Al has shut out terrorists since 1968.

The politically correct approach to profiling achieved its goal of minimizing complaints, which plunged from 78 in 1997 to 11 in 1998, 13 in 1999, and 10 last year, according to Transportation Department data. It did not work so well at preventing mass murder. On September 11, the CAPS system flagged only six of the 19 Middle Eastern hijackers for extra scrutiny, which was apparently confined to the bags of the two who checked luggage. None of the 19 men or their carry-ons appear to have been individually searched. And the FAA's 1999 decision to seal CAPS off from all law enforcement databases—after complaints from liberal groups that criminal records were error-prone—may help explain why the FBI had not told the FAA that two of the 19 were on its watch list of suspected terrorists.

It's unclear whether national-origin profiling would have prevented the hijackings, in part because FAA rules did not bar small knives—although some airlines have suggested that they would have confiscated any box cutters they detected. But politically correct profiling virtually guaranteed that the hijackers' weapons would go undetected.

The Bush Administration's profiling policy, if any, is cloaked in politically cowardly and dangerous ambiguity. The FAA and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft have implied opposition to national-origin profiling, even as Ashcroft's subordinates have detained with minimal explanation more than 1,000 people, mostly Middle Easterners against whom there appears to be scant evidence of terrorist activity. The Administration should have the courage to preach what it practices.

Some arguments repeatedly advanced by opponents of national-origin profiling illustrate the weakness of their logic:

You are suggesting that all Middle Easterners are terrorists. Nonsense. Obviously, only a minuscule number are terrorists. But any passenger might be a terrorist. That's why we all go through security screening. The logic of profiling is to identify for more-careful screening those small groups who, based on historical experience, seem much more likely than others to include suicide bombers (or just bombers). History tells us that all 19 of the September 11 suicide bombers, and most or all other terrorists known to have murdered planeloads of people have been Middle Eastern men. Millions of others clamor to join this jihad.

What about all the white male American terrorists? The list is not long: Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, a handful of anti-abortion extremists, a few others. In all, they have killed fewer than 200 people—less than 5 percent of the number killed on September 11 alone, not to mention the more than 600 Americans and thousands of others previously killed (mostly overseas) by Middle Eastern terrorists.

Profiling will foster racist hysteria. The opposite is more likely. The disgraceful ejections of Middle Easterners from airliners since September 11 were spurred less by racism than by well-founded fears of the ease with which weapons could be smuggled aboard. The best way to prevent such episodes is to give crews and passengers confidence that any would-be terrorists have been carefully searched.

Once you start profiling, there's no stopping point. Yes, there is. The police's stopping of people for "driving while black," for example, has rightly been discredited because the costs—both to those searched and to the long-term interests of law enforcement—far exceed any benefits. Stopping people for "driving while Arab" would be similarly unwarranted. Flying while Middle Eastern poses a dramatically different cost-benefit calculus.

If considered unblinkingly, this is not a close call. It has nothing to do with prejudice. It is a matter of life or death.