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The Secret Service Agent and the Airline

An Arab-American Secret Service agent was kicked off of a domestic flight. Was it unfair profiling or an understandable precaution?

11:01 PM, Jan 2, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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ON CHRISTMAS DAY, Wallid Shatter, an Arab-American member of President Bush's Secret Service detail, was ordered off American Airlines Flight 363 from Baltimore to Dallas. He was on his way to join the president at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has lodged a complaint with American Airlines, Shatter had already gone through the paperwork required of armed federal agents. It was the flight's captain who first raised concerns about him. Then, according to CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, "when the agent asked to go back on the plane to retrieve his jacket, the captain said, 'I don't want him back on that plane.'" The flight was delayed 75 minutes, and took off without Shatter.

CAIR has demanded both an apology and a clarification of policy from American Airlines. The Secret Service has launched an inquiry. And President Bush, by his own account, is irate. "If he was treated that way because of his ethnicity," Bush said, "that will make me madder than heck."

The president is trying to score cheap p.c. points off the incident, because this is malarkey. Consider the position of American, which has of late, let us not forget, seen a good deal of its personnel and clientele blown out of the skies by people who fit Shatter's profile.

Or, if you don't like profiling, let's ignore Shatter's profile for a moment. Christmas would have to be a high-alert day--a day on which a bomb or a hijacking would have especially great news value, and on which both security and in-flight personnel were likely severely understaffed. Some guy who claims to be going to see the president tries to get on a plane--with a gun--and the captain doesn't like the look of his paperwork. Specifically, Shatter was taking Flight 363 because he had been bumped from an earlier flight. According to the captain, the information he gave on the form for the second flight didn't match the information he'd given on the same form for the first.

Then, to top it off, the guy tries to get back on the plane. Have you ever left a sweater or a cell phone on a flight and tried to get back down the jetway? Being a forgetful person, I have. What happened, even before September 11, was that everyone standing near the gate surrounds you. If you show the slightest hint of insisting ("Aw, come on . . . that sweater's got my return ticket on it"), they get ready to call the cops. I was never (up until September 11) a big fan of this kind of draconian security on airlines. But the point is, the airlines have a longstanding record of not messing around when it comes to access to their planes--no matter what the passenger's color is. When American Airlines spokeswoman Laura Mayo says the incident was not about racial profiling but about "confirming that an armed individual is who he says he is and that he is qualified to travel," we ought to believe her.

According to Ibrahim Hooper, "If [Shatter] had had the name John Smith and hadn't been of Arab-American background, there wouldn't have been a problem." Hooper is wrong. "John Smith," trying to board the flight with the same gun and the same iffy paperwork, would have been booted unceremoniously, and you'd never have heard another word about it, because Smith has no "civil rights" groups to agitate for kid-gloves treatment. In fact, if Wallid Shatter had been named John Smith, American Airlines would now be demanding an apology from him, rather than vice versa.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.