Profiling, Political Correctness, and Airport Security
I must take issue with Erik’s recent post on airport security in which he argued for abolishing the TSA, replacing it with privatized airport security, and adopting an Israeli “profiling” approach to airport security. With regards to Erik’s points regarding privatization, I must say that I largely agree with mistermix’s response at Balloon Juice. Erik capably answers a number of those objections in a follow-up post here, although I think he still falls short, particularly since he seems to acknowledge that privatized security firms would still primarily be contractors of the airports, which are typically government or quasi-government entities unto themselves (and which, due to their nature, are typically even more immune to democratic accountability than other government entities). That fact is, I think, fatal to his argument since under his proposed regime, the ultimate “customer” of the contractors is a government entity rather than travellers and taxpayers. One of these contractors’ primary functions would thus be to further insulate the hiring government entity from accountability. This goes to one of my longtime hobby horses: the benefits of the private sector are destroyed when (typically due to some form of government intervention) the customer and the consumer are two distinctly different entities.
But I wanted to focus more on Erik’s argument for Israeli-style profiling, which he suggests is unrealistic in the US because “political correctness will not protect us from being groped, but it will protect us from being profiled..”
My issue is not so much with the concept of Israeli-style profiling as it is with the concept that political correctness is the primary obstacle to its implementation, which suggests race, ethnicity, or religion should be a major factor in a profiling regime. Erik has quite rightly gotten some pushback against the notion of profiling based on such factors; as Greg Sargent has correctly noted, such sentiments mean that “it’s not really accurate to say that the new conservative anthem is ‘don’t touch my junk.’ It’s more like, ‘touch his junk.’ That doesn’t seem very libertarian.”
However, commenter Mike Farmer makes an important responsive point, writing:
It still amazes me how words can be so quickly demonized, so the very mention of the word causes irrational outrage. Profile doesn’t mean baseless discrimination against a certain nationality or race — in this case, it means judging people at airports by set of criteria which raise a red flag.
The fact is, there are ways to implement a profiling system that would not use race, ethnicity, or religion as a factor in and of itself and that would not be objectionable on grounds of “political correctness” (which, in this context, is ultimately indistinguishable from grounds of 14th Amendment equal protection).* Indeed, a system that used race, ethnicity, or religion as a significant factor in assessing an individual’s threat level would prove to be every bit as much “security theater” as the existing system, as radical Islamic terrorist organizations would just look for Chechens, Albanians, Africans, or even American converts to conduct their suicide missions. And it’s not exactly difficult for a would-be terrorist to deny his religion or wear Western garb to avoid the suggested profiling for Muslims. The truth is that, with respect to American air transportation, al-Qaeda already seems to be doing exactly this anyhow – since 9/11, the two attempted attacks on US aviation that have actually advanced beyond the planning stages involved a non-Arab Nigerian and a Briton with the last name of “Reid.” And this of course says nothing about the Jose Padillas and Adam Gadahns of the world, much less the Timothy McVeighs.
This is not to say that a non-discriminatory profiling system would have a race, religion, or ethnicity-neutral effect – while Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, make up an infinitessimally small portion of the US population (and at most only a slightly greater portion of American airline passengers), it’s fairly undeniable that they make up a significant portion (though certainly not all, and probably not even a majority) of anti-US terrorists. We also know that globally, Arabs and Muslims have a much more negative view of the US than other ethnicities or religionists, a fact that by itself will (and should) make someone more likely to get singled out in any profiling-based system.
Meanwhile, I also find it hard to believe that Americans as a group are more concerned with a security system that might hypothetically run afoul of “political correctness” than they are concerned with a security system in which everyone is subject to either a virtual strip search or sexual assault.
Instead, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason a “profiling” system would not work and indeed has not been attempted in the US is that it’s not scaleable. Israel has one major airport, which by US standards would only be “mid-sized.” Yet look at the security line at that airport, which is more befitting of Newark or Atlanta than it is of Pittsburgh or St. Louis. A good profiling system is labor-intensive in a way that 0ur system simply does not have the capacity to implement, and would unacceptably undermine the numerous sectors of our economy that rely heavily on air transportation. And this says nothing of the direct economic costs of appropriately training and paying security officers charged with conducting the profiling. Nor, as the article above suggests, does it say anything about eliminating the bureaucratic infighting and secrecy amongst American intelligence agencies in a manner that would allow tens of thousands of airport security personnel access to the intelligence necessary to adequately do their jobs.
So it’s not “political correctness” (aka the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment) that is standing in the way of replacing full-body scans with a strong and effective profiling system: it’s reality. All that “political correctness” is preventing is the implementation of an equally (and likely even more) ineffective piece of security theater in which we single out one minority group for intensive screening while giving a pass to everyone else. This would certainly annoy fewer people, but it wouldn’t make us safer and its sole benefits would be accomplished by treating an entire minority group as second-class citizens.
*None of this is to pretend that the Israeli system is race, ethnicity, or religion-neutral. However, it must be emphasized that the Israeli constitution is different from our constitution, and that the threats Israel faces from terrorism are both greater and different in nature than the threats we face. The constitutional differences and greater size of the threats faced by Israel make it difficult for Americans to fairly evaluate the propriety of relying heavily on race, ethnicity, or religion in profiling, while the differences in nature of the threats make profiling on such grounds more effective for Israelis. By “differences in nature” I’m referring to the fact that Israel’s terrorists are almost entirely drawn from a well-organized set of local – if internationally funded – groups drawn from a particular subset of the population, while anti-American terrorists are drawn from a poorly organized coalition of groups with members around the globe.