Protecting the Skies
Wed, 01/06/2010

The Obama administration’s decision this week to increase airport inspection of U.S.-bound travelers from 14 countries — 13 of them Muslim — considered more likely to include terrorism suspects is a tacit acknowledgment of a politically incorrect and controversial assumption: that there is a correlation between Muslims and terror attacks.

Supporters of the new mandate say this is less about religious/ethnic profiling and more about common sense. While the great majority of Muslims are not bent on terrorizing the U.S., the great majority of terrorists in the last decade targeting our country have been Muslims. So in the effort to identify terrorists at airports — akin to searching for a needle in a haystack — the more tools available to intelligence and security agents, the better, advocates argue.

Critics insist that profiling is not only discriminatory but ineffective. If agents are looking for Muslim names or faces, terrorists will recruit people who don’t fit the description. Transportation agents should target people based on criminal behavior, critics say. Besides, consider the backlash that would result from innocent Muslims coming to resent being singled out for heightened inspection.

Israel has been most effective in the field of airline security, knowing how to detect behavioral characteristics that point toward potential terrorists. Asking pointed questions and searching a person’s eyes and physical reactions are far more telling than the kind of random testing that finds elderly women or small children being singled out. But when one considers the volume of American air travelers, the painstaking process employed by Israel seems unrealistic on such a large scale.

It is easy to criticize U.S. efforts as ineffectual, seemingly always a step behind terrorist strategies. We seek to protect building entrances, and terrorists fly planes into buildings; after the shoe bomber, we have our shoes inspected, and terrorists use liquids. Now it’s underwear. What’s next?

There are no easy answers, and it is unrealistic to expect that every terror threat can be thwarted in advance. But it is embarrassing to see how Congress has played politics with this security crisis. Rather than shortsighted attempts to address yesterday’s problems, we need to determine where the next threats are coming from and how to counter them. That requires cooperation, clear thinking and a commitment to protect innocent people, hopefully through intelligence work that would thwart would-be terrorists before they reach the checkpoints.

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