Friday, May 13, 2011

The Profiling Perplex

Did you catch the news the other day about the guy who pounded on the locked cockpit door of an American Airlines plane bound for San Francisco before fellow passengers subdued him and held him for arrest?

According to media reports, the would-be - well, would-be what? Murderer? Hijacker? Kidnapper? - boarded AA flight 1561 with no luggage, $47 in cash and two post-dated checks. The 28-year-old man, an immigrant from Yemen and legal resident of the United States, boarded the flight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. About half an hour before the plane was scheduled to land at San Francisco International Airport, the passenger ran up the aisle toward the cockpit, repeatedly shouting "Allahu akbar'', Arabic for "God is great,'' according to eyewitnesses. The phrase is often used in terror attacks by Islamic militants.

How did the accused manage to slip through airport and airline security nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States using hijacked aircraft? Isn't a matrix of indicators - luggage or no luggage, round-trip ticket or one-way, little if any cash, the traveler's religion, national origin, any criminal record, immigration status - supposed to be used to draw a profile of travelers and determine whether they pose a threat?

Ah, there it is, the charged word "profile.' Profiling is bad because it can be used to unfairly stereotype and thus stigmitize a person. And yet, in an age when fantatics are willing - nay, eager - to kill themselves and others in the name of a cause or religion, shouldn't ethnicity, nationality and religion be taken into account and weighed proportionately in assembling a portrait - a profile?

It's impossible to enter the mind of airport screeners and know for sure what they saw when the accused boarded AA flight 1561 earlier this week. But the possibility that screeners didn't want to appear to discriminate against an Arab Muslim by pulling him aside for additional screening and questioning needs to be considered. Better to pull over a mainstream-looking, Caucasan grandmother for additional screening, to make a public show of fairness.

If that is indeed the case - and I've seen it happen at U.S. airport security checkpoints - a misguided sense of political correctness is tearing holes in the security screen intended to protect innocent travelers and others. Security screeners, police, intel officers and their bosses bear full moral and legal responsbility. Yes, it's a tough job, but they accepted it.

We live in a dangerous world. The sad, unavoidable truth is that profiling is necessary in order to save lives. May as well get used to it. We're going to be living in a dangerous world for some time - I'd say for generations.

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