The Blog

It's the WAIF, Stupid

On searches, security, and the impact of war at home.

12:00 AM, Aug 17, 2005 • By WILLIAM ANDERSON
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THE NEWS THAT AIRPORT SECURITY SCREENING POLICIES are undergoing a critical review at the Transportation Security Administration is surprisingly hopeful. The proposed revisions would lift the ban on minimally dangerous items such as scissors and razor blades, as well as relaxing requirements on removing shoes. Sanity may soon break out.

These sensible proposals evidently reflect the growing realization that hijacking as used by the 9/11 terrorists has become obsolete. Hardened cockpit access, some armed pilots, and vigorous resistance from the passengers make such tactics unlikely to succeed. The operative threat today is from suicide bombers.

So how do we prevent them? Recently an online poll at THE DAILY STANDARD found that 70 percent of respondents thought random searches in subways and railroad stations for detection of terrorists were both constitutional and sensible. This is madness.

Random searches are both constitutionally dubious and ineffective. The operative principle is the lack of probable cause. A terrorist with a bomb will almost certainly not be selected randomly. But if it happened, he could merely refuse the search and get back in line, knowing that it would be highly unlikely that he would be randomly selected a second time.

The frail young woman I saw being randomly searched at the airport the other day was dressed in the minimal attire appropriate for the hot weather. She couldn't possibly have concealed a bomb. Thus were we protected from terrorism by a search of this waif.

Random searches without sanction for refusal are utterly useless, and serve no purpose other than to delay and annoy travelers and to create the illusion of enhanced security. This false reassurance actually protects the would-be terrorist and diverts resources into unproductive sidetracks.

What is the sensible alternative to random searches? Targeted searches, of course! But how to target? Well, for a start, let us recall how this war began. As Heather Mac Donald has reminded us, it was Muslims that Osama bin Laden grandiosely commanded to kill Americans whenever and wherever possible. Almost all Muslims, to their credit, scorn this lunacy, but a few do not. And virtually all who have obeyed bin Laden were indeed Muslims. Thus the rational approach, however distasteful, is to subject Muslims to whatever special scrutiny might be judged to be practical or useful.

Not everyone who spoke German in 1941 was a Nazi. But almost every Nazi spoke German. Thus it was not seen as unreasonable then to subject German speakers to special scrutiny when hunting for spies. Similarly, it is reasonable, indeed essential, to use the various demographic characteristics of known terrorists as clues to the identities of those as yet undetected.

We cannot prevail over our enemies until we know them. A recent letter to the Wall Street Journal proposed a label that would help us do this: We should call our present struggle the War Against Islamic Fascism. We should prosecute this WAIF vigorously, and let the waifs go on their way unmolested.


William Anderson is a lecturer at Harvard and writes on national security affairs.