Find the Terrorist

Profiling for terrorists at airports makes sense, but only if done rationally. Leave Joan Rivers alone.

I don’t fly much. I used to do it often, and I liked it, but the few times I flew last year were tiring, nerve-stretching, and unpleasant. I remember the chaos of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and understand that American airports could be much worse, but if they aren’t Hell on Earth they’re definitely Heck in Arizona.

The big problem is security. It forces you to show up at the airport far earlier than you’d like, which already starts your journey on the wrong foot. You can’t take a bottle of water through, you have to remove your shoes and dump all your possessions into bins for screening, and no one is at all helpful when they see you struggling with your bag and your children. I’ve been flagged for special attention a couple of times, most recently last spring when my flight from Tucson was cancelled and I was bussed up to Phoenix with a backpack full of gemstones. I nearly had a stroke when security “asked” me to go one way while my pack went another.

Why was I flagged? I have no idea. Probably for the same reason the old lady behind me was flagged - luck of the draw. An older friend who often flies tells me she’s been pulled over for extra screening three times in the last two years and her elderly husband once. I can’t say that we don’t look like potential terrorists because I don’t know what potential terrorists look like. If I were a terrorist mastermind, I’d make sure that my minions didn’t look like terrorists, so I can’t say that there’s no rational reason to subject old ladies to thorough manual searches. Grandma could probably pack a bigger bomb in her girdle than the underwear bomber squeezed into his briefs, and it wouldn’t make her walk funny.

Perhaps my friend and I get extra attention on the basis of some TSA criteria and our aggravations haven’t been random. If that’s the case, I question the value of the criteria used. I know too many people who have been subjected to that hassle. But if you think from this that profiling doesn’t work, you’re wrong. Profiling works beautifully, if you use the appropriate criteria. Consider another type of profiling – restrictions on some dog breeds. Pit bulls (American Staffordshire terriers) are a commonly restricted breed. They also happen to be some of the sweetest dogs you’ll ever meet. They’ve been banned in some places because of high-profile cases of human mauling.

Of all large dog breeds (say, average adult weight over 40 pounds), only one has never been implicated in a deadly attack on humans – the basset hound. Golden retrievers, standard poodles, Irish setters, and St. Bernards have all enjoyed the taste of “long pork,” and even some smaller breeds have taken drastic steps to rid themselves of infant competitors for their masters’ attention. Even Chihuahuas dream of their wolfish past.

Any dog fancier would tell you that the problem with dogs isn’t particular breeds (except Chihuahuas, which are mostly insane), but human abuse of and ineptitude with those breeds. Pit bulls are temperamentally sweet, but their great strength and tolerance for pain make them favorite victims of people who want to create fighting dogs, and the sweetest of us can be turned into a savage by a persistent thug. People who want to reduce dog-violence in our communities shouldn’t be looking at breed (the wrong criterion for profiling), but at whether animals have been neutered, whether they’re kept indoors or chained outdoors (chained dogs are three times more likely to bite), and whether they’ve had obedience training (much more important for large breeds than for small, at least with regards to safety).

Let’s get back to terrorists. The point of my digression on dogs is that profiling should be rational. Our policy leaders think of profiling in irrational ways and want to bend over backwards to avoid it. And they’re right; it would make no sense simply to pull swarthy, vaguely Arab-looking men out of line for special attention. If we do that the terrorists will just look for blonds and old ladies to carry their bombs. Passengers who panic on hearing other passengers speak Arabic or looking foreign are like people who want to ban pit bulls, not noticing the angry lab about to go for the jugular.

The alternative of pulling people at random is just as useless as profiling by complexion. Unless you’re prepared to pull over a very large percentage of travelers, the terrorists will be sure to get through by increasing their numbers just slightly. Abandoning profiling entirely forces you to check everyone, including people less likely to be terrorists than Joan Rivers.

I saw on TV last night that Mrs. Rivers had a run-in with airline security. It seems they were disturbed by the two names on her passport. On the one hand my democratic leanings tell me no one should be exempt from security requirements. If we’re going to pull people out of line for raising automatic warning flags, why not include celebrities? But for goodness sake, treating Joan Rivers as a terrorist threat? That’s idiotic, and it doesn’t deter terrorists. It just uses up resources that should be devoted to finding real threats, and it announces to the world that we aren’t all that serious about air security.

Rational security measures will of course include x-raying all baggage that goes into an airport and passing all passengers, even celebrities, through screening devices. Forcing me to take off my shoes, though, is looking for yesterday’s threat. One almost expects the attempted underwear bomber to lead to regulations that we all fly commando. Please, no. Some people should get extra attention from TSA and airline security, but it should be on the basis of profiling by categories that aren’t easily circumvented by terrorists.

And for goodness sake, Secretary Napolitano, once you’ve got your criteria, do try to keep them off the internet.

From the age of six economist Jim Picht always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa, and making jewelry that he can’t bear to sell. Until airport security procedures and airline service improve, he’d rather walk to Arizona than fly there.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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