The Proof is in the Profile

by Blair Sullivan | 1/10/10 11:00pm

In her article last week, ("Timeout, TSA," Jan. 5) Emily Johnson '12 addressed the issue of airport security, asserting that tax dollars are best spent on gathering intelligence which can help prevent attacks before they occur. While most of our efforts should certainly be preemptive, airport security must not be ignored. A fundamental transformation in airport security policies can both increase safety and provide a better experience for travelers. In order for this to happen, however, Americans must be ready to put safety over political correctness. And, in some cases, this may require focusing more attention on passengers of particular races and backgrounds.

Johnson deems some of the current TSA policies ineffective and unnecessarily burdensome on passengers. This may be true. Immediately after the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, the agency implemented suspect new rules such as prohibiting passengers from using blankets during the last hour of their flight. Nevertheless, efforts to improve airport security must not be abandoned. No matter how much money and effort we spend on strengthening intelligence, people will slip through the cracks, and in these instances, airport security must be a sufficient fallback option. Rather than enforce current ineffective policies, airports should implement new measures that have been proven to increase safety.

Some have suggested that we look to Israel's airport security measures for guidance. Israel's national carrier, El Al, is widely recognized as the safest airline in the world, and Ben Gurion International Airport, located in Tel Aviv, is considered the safest airport. Despite the global threat of terrorism, no El Al plane has been attacked in over 30 years, and no flights leaving Ben Gurion have ever been hijacked. Israel's airports are not only safer, but travel through them runs more smoothly than it does in U.S. airports. Screening is more focused on travelers (potential terrorists) than on their luggage and personal items (potential weapons). For this reason, El Al spares passengers tedious procedures like asking them to remove their shoes that cause security delays. And still, they are safer.

Part of the reason that Israel's system is so successful is that it explicitly relies on profiling passengers as potential terrorists. In an interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Lieutenant Colonel Eran Tuval of the Israel Defense Forces' Ground Command's Substances Laboratory admitted, "We rely on racial profiling in many of the security checks at Ben Gurion." While all passengers are scanned and screened, Muslims and suspected members of pro-Palestinian organizations are typically subjected to more thorough screening, including interrogations and body searches. The result? As one Israeli security officer explained in The Jewish Chronicle, "This does mean that a minority of passengers are inconvenienced, mostly through no fault of their own, but we do this to allow the large majority to travel comfortably. And, of course, to prevent terror."

Some Americans object to racial profiling because they see it as an infringement upon individual liberties and a policy which unfairly targets potentially innocent people. On this basis, some including another of my fellow columnists, Jasper Hicks '12 ("Profiles in Haste," Jan. 6) have voiced opposition to the government's recent announcement that citizens from 14 particular countries will be more heavily screened at airports. Perhaps this opposition exists because the terrorist attempt failed. Had the plot succeeded, it is likely that more Americans would support this extra precaution. Public opinion in the wake of 9/11 demonstrated that, in a time of fear, safety is the most important concern. National polls reveal that in 1999, 81 percent of Americans disapproved of racial profiling. Immediately after 9/11, however, 58 percent of Americans said that they favored "requiring Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, to undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes," according to a June 2002 article in the Columbia Law Review.

In the weeks since the attempted Christmas Day attack, and in the years since 9/11, many Americans have simultaneously demanded impenetrable airport safety and pleasant, non-invasive travel experiences. They have also demanded that these be accomplished without the use of racial profiling. Hopefully it will not take more terrorist attacks (or attempts) in order for Americans to realize that something may have to give.