Nearly five years after Sept. 11, 2001, US airport security remains obstinately focused on intercepting bad things -- guns, knives, explosives. It is a reactive policy, aimed at preventing the last terrorist plot from being repeated. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so sharp metal objects were barred from carry-on luggage. Would-be suicide terrorist Richard Reid tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so now everyone's footwear is screened for tampering. Earlier this month British authorities foiled a plan to blow up airliners with liquid explosives; as a result, toothpaste and cologne have become air-travel contraband.I've posted a couple recent entries based on Jacoby's essays, for example, "What is a Chicken Hawk?," and "The Threat from Hezbollah to U.S. Security Interests."
Of course the Israelis check for bombs and weapons too, but always with the understanding that things don't hijack planes, terrorists do -- and that the best way to detect terrorists is to focus on intercepting not bad things, but bad people. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El Al and Ben Gurion depends on intelligence and intuition -- what Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben Gurion, calls the human factor.
Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials constantly monitor behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger: bulky clothing, say, or a nervous manner. Profilers -- that's what they're called -- make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length. They probe, as one profiling supervisor told CBS, for ``anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit." Their questions can seem odd or intrusive, especially if your only previous experience with an airport interrogation was being asked whether you packed your bags yourself.
Unlike in US airports, where passengers go through security after checking in for their flights and submitting their luggage, security at Ben Gurion comes first. Only when the profiler is satisfied that a passenger poses no risk is he or she allowed to proceed to the check-in counter. By that point, there is no need to make him remove his shoes, or to confiscate his bottle of water.
Gradually, airport security in the United States is inching its way toward screening people, rather than just their belongings. At a handful of airports, security officers are being trained to notice facial expressions, body language, and speech patterns, which can hint at a traveler's hostile intent or fear of being caught.
But because federal policy still bans ethnic or religious profiling, US passengers continue to be singled out for special scrutiny mostly on a random basis. Countless hours have been spent patting down elderly women in wheelchairs, toddlers with pacifiers, even former US vice presidents -- time that could have been used instead to concentrate on passengers with a greater likelihood of being terrorists.
No sensible person imagines that ethnic or religious profiling alone can stop every terrorist plot. But it is illogical and potentially suicidal not to take account of the fact that so far every suicide-terrorist plotting to take down an American plane has been a radical Muslim man. It is not racism or bigotry to argue that the prevention of Islamist terrorism necessitates a special focus on Muslim travelers, just as it is not racism or bigotry when police trying to prevent a Mafia killing pay closer attention to Italians.
Of course most Muslims are not violent jihadis, but all violent jihadis are Muslim. ``This nation," President Bush has said, ``is at war with Islamic fascists." How much longer will we tolerate an aviation security system that pretends, for reasons of political correctness, not to know that?
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
The Lessons from Israeli Airport Security
Jeff Jacoby's got an interesting piece up today at the Boston Globe on what Israeli airport security could teach the U.S. about airline safety. Jacoby notes that Israel's Ben Gurion Airport is the world's safest, and Israel's national airline, El Al, has gone three decades without a terrorist attack on one of their planes. Airport security differs in the U.S. and Israel. For example, Americans take off their shoes for X-ray screening, while Israelis are spared the inconvienence. Jacoby notes that Israeli air security peronnel are more interactive with travelers, making a point to communicate with most passengers boarding planes, quite a different security regime than in the U.S. Most important, though, is that Israeli officials don't hesitate from ethnic profiling:
Posted by Donald Douglas at 8:17 PM