It’s inspiring really. As you stood in the long, long pre-Christmas lines at airport security, you might have thought that the transportation safety authorities had already achieved the very summit of futility and waste. But no! They were only waiting for a signal to outdo themselves. That signal came with the Christmas underwear bomb attempt. The next day, air travelers confronted bans on blankets, electronics, late-flight bathroom visits, even reading materials.
Happily, the attack on Northwest Flight 253 seems at last to have triggered a belated reaction against ever-accumulating absurdities in the name of security. We’re hearing a demand for Israeli-style airport security: security that screens for terrorists, not bombs.
The reaction has been long in coming. The present approach was put in place by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta passionately disavowed anything that smacked of ethnic profiling. Everybody would be subject to the same screening: no leniency would be shown to toddlers, grandmothers and Congressional Medal of Honor Winners.
Now at last there’s a constituency for undoing Mineta’s mistake. But if we are going to do security right, we need to understand exactly what Mineta got wrong.
Post-9/11 security has been shaped by two imperatives.
The first is the desire to avoid ethnic profiling -- not to allow "Flying while Muslim" to become the 21st century equivalent of "Driving while Black."
The second is the desire to protect individual privacy and limit the police power of the security agencies.
It’s the first imperative that draws most of the criticism. It’s the second that is the real problem.
On his blog yesterday, Daniel Pipes reminded us of the procedure that saved an El Al jetliner from a terrorist bomb in 1986. A Palestinian terrorist had seduced an Irish-Catholic chambermaid at a London hotel. The woman, Anne-Marie Doreen Murphy, became pregnant. The terrorist promised to marry Murphy, if she would meet him in Israel for the wedding. He then planted a bomb in her luggage. Here’s the conversation that discovered the plot:
"What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?" Recalling [her lover] Hindawi's instructions, Murphy answered, "For a vacation."
"Are you married, Miss Murphy?" "No."
"Traveling alone?" "Yes."
"Is this your first trip abroad?" "Yes."
"Do you have relatives in Israel?" "No."
"Are you going to meet someone in Israel?" "No.
"Has your vacation been planned for a long time?" "No."
"Where will you stay while you're in Israel?" "The Tel Aviv Hilton."
"How much money do you have with you?" "Fifty pounds." The Hilton at that time costing at least £70 a night, he asked:
"Do you have a credit card?" "Oh, yes," she replied, showing him an ID for cashing checks.
That did it, and the agent sent her bag for additional inspection, where the bombing apparatus was discovered.
There’s nothing ethnic about this profiling. It would seem Minetta-approved. But no -- there’s the second imperative.
Even in the recessionary year ending in September 2009, there occurred almost 710 million departures from U.S. airports. It would be impossibly time-consuming to subject every passenger to the degree of individuated scrutiny Ms Murphy encountered.
In order to concentrate the security officers’ time where it is most needed, we need a way to screen out the passengers who pose little risk.
In the early 2000s, the airlines proposed "trusted traveler" programs. Individuals who wished to pass more easily through airports could volunteer to disclose information to confirm that they presented little threat: length of time at their current residence, for example. These pieces of information would together generate a risk profile, and people who scored low would pass more easily. (The governments of the U.S. and Canada operate an analogous program at North American customs and immigration crossing points.)
Repeatedly, however, civil liberties groups objected to these proposals. They complained that the information requested was intrusive and excessive. Perhaps they also surmised that the passengers who would speed through the lines would be older, richer, more employed, more native-born, and more married than those waiting for Murphy-style questioning.
But of course it is the younger, poorer, less employed, less native-born and less married who are more likely to commit an attack -- and who are thus more appropriate persons for scrutiny
In other contexts, liberals do understand the power of probability. One of the most admired liberal policy books of the season, Mark Kleiman’s When Brute Force Fails, argues for reconsidering current law enforcement policy. His main recommendation is precisely to concentrate resources where they will do the most good. If that’s valid advice for the diversion of troubled young Americans away from crime -- why is not equally valid for diverting would-be terrorists from the airways?