The Magazine

Profiles in Correctness

There is no harm in acknowledging that the sort of person who is likely to be a terrorist is not just any citizen who happens to walk into an airport.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Ordinarily, the changing of the guard at the Department of Transportation is not an occasion for reconsidering matters of national security. But the retirement of Secretary Norman Mineta, and the nomination of Mary Peters to succeed him, might afford an opportunity to rethink and improve how we fight on one front in the war on terror.

As everybody knows, the recent arrest of more than 20 alleged jihadists in Great Britain jolted airport security procedures. The would-be terrorists had planned to detonate explosives on as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets in mid-August using chemicals found in common household products. Immediately, a wide array of articles, ranging from toothpaste to bottled water to lipstick, were banned from carry-on luggage.

Americans are strongly in support of the war on terror, and recognize that new realities may require the adaptation of old habits. We have long since grown accustomed to the security procedures instituted since the first epidemic of airline hijackings 35 years ago and, most especially, since 9/11. But Americans are equally aware that the rules are sometimes capricious and unreasonable. In establishing guidelines for screening airline passengers, for example, Secretary Mineta was particularly concerned with avoiding any hint of "profiling." Accordingly, your 90-year-old Methodist grandmother flying from Dubuque to Springfield on a round-trip ticket was just as likely to be subject to close random scrutiny--her shoes removed, her body patted, her suitcase ransacked, her knitting needles confiscated--as a 20-year-old "student" from Riyadh traveling from Hamburg to New York.

Moreover, while it remains forbidden to bring a penknife or a lighter on board an airplane, despite the presence of armed marshals and the reinforcement of cockpit doors, no such rules apply to railroad or bus passengers. A terrorist attack on a bus or train--not to mention a subway or ferry--could be just as catastrophic as an assault on a plane. This is not to say that the sort of security that now applies at airports should be extended to subway stops and bus stations. But it does suggest two good reasons for Secretary-designate Peters to review and reform transportation security when she takes office.

First, there is no harm in acknowledging that the sort of person who is likely to be a terrorist is not just any citizen who happens to walk into an airport, but someone with specific, comprehensible characteristics of age, national origin, sex, religion, and behavior. So far as we are aware, no jihadist plots have been perpetrated against Americans by little old ladies from Dubuque, but several terrorist attacks--in particular, 9/11--have been carried out by young Muslim men of Middle Eastern origin. No, not all young men, not all Muslims, not all people from the Middle East, are jihadists or potential terrorists. Of course not. But common sense, and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, should make it obvious to airport security personnel where to concentrate their energies. The amount of wasted time in airport security, and the trouble expended confiscating harmless items, is irrational when compared with the actual threat we face.

Second, while Americans support the war against terror, they do so against various odds. The fact is that certain political figures, and certain elements in the media, regard the war on terror not as a common struggle in which we all have a stake, but as a political strategy of the Bush administration. It is not difficult to find cynicism in coverage of the war, or skepticism about its danger to our national life. In our view, the confused and confusing principles governing transportation security only add to such cynicism and skepticism. When Americans are, in effect, mistreated as they go about their business at airports--regarded with suspicion, subject to humiliating searches and seizures, forced to endure long delays and hostile questions--it undermines confidence in their government's determination to vanquish terrorism. This is especially true when they know that they are subject to such indignities not because they are effective, but because they have become a habit, or it might be politically incorrect to do otherwise.

Let's be clear: We strongly favor smart, effective policies that ensure, as much as possible, public safety as we travel. We also recognize that security in the age of terror will result in occasional inconvenience and official intrusiveness. That is a price everyone is willing to pay.

The operative word, however, is "smart." Do the principles that govern transportation security reflect policies designed to protect innocent people and identify and apprehend terrorists? Or are they a random assortment of panicky procedures, petty harassments, and P.C. rules that exasperate Americans, and breed mistrust about the most important issue of our time?

--Philip Terzian, for the Editors