If a terrorist wants to launch an attack in the U.S. using a weapon of mass destruction they have two basic options: (1) Create the WMD in a foreign land and smuggle it into America, or (2) smuggle a knife onto an American airplane and use it to create a WMD.
The first option remains only a hypothetical scenario, yet the threat of it occurring was used as a primary justification for the invasion of Iraq.
The second option was all too real. On September 11, 2001, nineteen men armed with knives and boxcutters were able to board four aircraft in three different airports without setting off the metal detectors used for passenger screening. They commandeered four aircraft and used the planes to kill nearly 3,000 and injured more than 6,000 Americans.
You might assume that preventing a similar type of attack would be a national security priority. You might assume that measures that prevent terrorist from boarding aircraft with weapons would garner almost universal support. You might even assume that the people who were most vocal in criticizing the government for failing to do enough to protect us would praise the increase in security—even though it took nine years to implement.
I confess that I was foolish enough to make just those assumptions. I never suspected that when the Transportation Security Administration announced it was implementing full-body scanners that a significant number of pundits and politicians would hyperventilate and resort to overheated hyperbole to denounce the changes.
Charles Krauthammer provides a prime example in his uncharacteristically crude article on the new measures. Instead of thoroughly checking for weapons, he would prefer that we use ethnic and racial profiling:
We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to assure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.
The fact that such an intelligent man can believe that these people can be identified by “profiling” is a sign that we’ve long stopped thinking rationally about this issue.
Krauthammer claims that “the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known.” Rubbish. Hijackers have been Algerian, American, Arabic, Bolivian, Brazilian, Chechen, Croatian, Czechoslovakian, Ethiopian, German, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian, Jamaican, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese, Lithuanian, Moroccan, Palestinian, Pakistani, Pilipino, Saudi, Sri Lankan, Sudanese, and Turkish. The only narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known characteristic that they all have is that they were men.
Although all of the terrorists on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Ladin had recruited terrorists from twenty-one different countries, including Thailand and Nigeria. Since the attackers could have been from any of those countries, for profiling to be effective we’d need the ability to identify suspects by their nationality—and to do so by appearance since identification documents can be forged.
How do we distinguish between an African terrorist from Nigeria and an African-American businessman from Atlanta? How do we determine by looking at someone that they are an Al Queda operative from Thailand rather than a Thai American student from Los Angeles?
Since Krauthammer apparently knows how to spot a terrorist on sight, perhaps he should be in charge of the TSA. Unfortunately, most of us, including screeners at the TSA, do not possess his gift for profiling.
What Krauthammer suggests is that we need to require all brown and black-skinned men—especially those with funny accents—to undergo additional scrutiny. That is how it works in Israel, which is the model that the pro-profiling advocates believe the U.S. should adopt.
They fail to realize that even if we were willing to resort to such race-based screening, the Israel method would not work in America. Anyone who has examined the numbers can see the obvious problems of scale: Israel has fewer than 50 flights a day, the U.S. has approximately 35,000; Israel has seven airports, the U.S. has more than 400; Israel has 9 million air travelers per year; the U.S. has 800 million;.
The profilers in Israel are all highly trained, college-educated, and speak a minimum of two languages. Could we find enough qualified applicants to fill the positions? Would we be willing to pay the additional cost? Also, Israeli profilers are allowed personal questions about a person’s friends and family, their profession, even their religious observance. How many people who complain about a body scanner would be willing to submit to such an invasion of their privacy?
We should also keep in mind that profiling does nothing to prevent a person from boarding a plane with a weapon. On November 17, 2002, an Israeli Arab passed the profiling but managed to slip past the metal detectors at Ben Gurion Airport with a pocketknife and attempted to storm the cockpit of El Al Flight 581 en route from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, Turkey. Fortunately, before the hijacker was able to gain control, guards that were hidden among the passengers subdued him. Had these air marshal-equivalents not been onboard, we would likely not be hearing about the superiority of the Israeli method of airport screening.
The pro-profiling faction also seems to think that profiling based on age, race, and ethnicity would allow us to exclude certain other groups (e.g., elderly women, children, nuns, white people). But if the terrorists were aware that such people could easily pass through the screening process, what would stop them from planting weapons on an exempt group member? Since such a tactic has been used in the plot of several movies and books, it isn’t inconceivable that the terrorists have thought of this also. The profiling advocates seem to think the terrorists share their lack of imagination.
Such speculation is probably moot, though, since this is not really an issue about security. Few of the critics of the new procedures can adequately argue that they do not make us at least marginally safer. Their concerns are not about ineffectual security but about their belief that their absolute right to privacy always trumps concerns over public safety and the welfare of their neighbors.
I realize that my criticism applies only to a small but vocal minority of critics. A recent poll reveals that four-in-five Americans support full-body airport scanners. These citizens understand that submitting to a body scanner or a pat-down is a small price to pay to prevent future acts of mass murder. While they may have legitimate concerns about safety or the potential for abuse by unscrupulous TSA agents, they understand the need for us all to do our part to protect each other.
Naturally, the loudest complaints against the changes appear to be coming from the usual privacy fetishists: the privileged elite who believes their most inviolable right is the right not to be personally inconvenienced.
I suspect there is an inverse correlation between those who have made contributions to the securing of our nation’s freedoms and those who scream the loudest about having their liberty violated. Our men and woman in uniform forgo constitutionally guaranteed rights in order to protect our national security—and they willing do so for years or decades without complaint.
They give life and limb for our nation and yet the pampered people complain because they have to take off their shoes for screening at the airport. Perhaps its time to update that corny old saying about perspective: “I cried because I had to remove my shoes, until I saw a veteran returning from Afghanistan who had no feet.”
Certainly there are some veterans and others who have served to protect our nations that are also indignant about TSA’s new security measures. But I suspect that most veterans are, like me, tired of hearing civilians whine when they are asked to take modest actions that will ensure the security of themselves and their fellow citizens.
Of course the cynical view is that the outrage over this issue is manufactured for effect. When Matt Drudge posts “The Terrorists Have Won!” you have to assume that he has either completely lost perspective or that he is merely trolling for pageviews. (Surely he doesn’t really think the goal of the terrorists was to have us increase airport security?)
Although there is no doubt the punditry class has become addicted to umbrage, I find it hard to believe that they can’t tell the difference between commonsensical security measures and violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on intrusive searches. Consider, for instance, my friend Matt Lewis, a very smart commentator who has succumbed to this TSA-inspired inanity. Lewis recently wrote:
The TSA passenger rebellion is merely the latest example of American exceptionalism and is perfectly in keeping with the nation’s ethos. As Ben Franklin declared, those “who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Let’s set aside the absurdity of the Franklin quote, one of the most bizarre remarks the genius from Pennsylvania ever said—the men and women of the military give up essential liberties, would Franklin say they deserve neither liberty nor safety?—and consider how it applies in this case. A hundred and twenty years ago airplanes didn’t even exist. Forty years ago, air travel was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Would Franklin really consider the right to travel by air an “essential liberty?” Should any of us?
That is, after all, what we are talking about—the liberty to use a particular form of transportation. No one is required to submit to the TSA’s scanners or pat-downs because almost no one is required to board an airplane against their will. While it may be an inconvenience there are alternate forms of travel. So for anyone that thinks their constitutional right to privacy is being violated by these new security measures, I have two words for you: Go Greyhound.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
The 9/11 Commission Report
Charles Krauthammer's Don't touch my junk
Matt Lewis' Why the TSA Outcry Is Healthy for America