The President first said: No big deal! Then, he called it a “systemic failure” and a “catastrophe.” He was wrong the first time and half right the second time. There was no catastrophe but it wasn’t thanks to our huge, expensive, cumbersome and troublesome anti-terrorism bureaucracy. It was asleep at the wheel one more time. The catastrophe was avoided because of the terrorist’s own incompetence (or loss of nerve) and because of the presence of mind and courage of a Dutch traveler. (Am I making this up or do I detect a reluctance on the part of the big media to call a foreigner, “a hero”?)
What we have is not working well enough, Even when it works, it’s repellent. The inconvenience of security checks act as a brake on my willingness to travel by air. There is no reason to think I am the only one feeling that way. In response to the failed crime, the airwaves have filled with discussion of “profiling.” Every discussion I have heard treats profiling in terms of physical appearance. It would not be difficult to convince me that preventive physical profiling could be done effectively and should be done. Yet. I try to be sensitive to the sensitivities of others. It’s clear that many Americans find the idea of profiling based on physical appearance disturbing, or even unacceptable. There may even be good historical reasons for this rejection that I will discuss if anyone asks. It seems to me though that a big partial solution is staring us in the face that I have nor heard mention at all. And yes, it involves profiling, another kind of profiling.
On the one hand, a Finnish grandmother who belongs to the Lutheran church is about 35,000 times less likely to blow up anything than a 28-year old Muslim man from Yemen. Yes, I made up this number. The real odds are probably even less than that. On the other hand, international air travel requires certain documents, a passport in almost all cases. Passports show the age and name of the traveler,
Muslim males nearly always have distinctive first name and last names. Even when their last name is generic, their first name comes from a small list of Islamic first names. So, why not profile on the basis of sex, age and name? I mean, create a special security line at airports for all males under a certain age (I think, fifty), who have a Muslim name. Subject them to special scrutiny and frisk them physically or electronically. I am not referring here to any deliberately humiliating or gratuitously disruptive treatment, just to a businesslike standardize procedure. In fact, if such a measure were adopted, one could ease up the inspection of everyone else and all lines would probably move faster, including, the profiling line itself.
Objections to such a scheme are easy to predict: Predominantly Muslim countries would protest. We could call their bluff and point out that international relations are governed by the principle of reciprocity: tit-for-tat. There would be nothing to stop them for subjecting young Christian men entering their territory to equivalent treatment. Some Muslim men would no doubt choose to go elsewhere on vacation or to school than the US. That would be a negative consequence but a price worth paying to avoid millions having their freedom restricted forever without notable gain in their safety. Besides, some of the tiny number of would-be terrorists might also be dissuaded. (A column in the Wall Street journal just observed that there is apparently not an inexhaustible supply of jihad martyrs.)
Next, American Muslims would howl: “Islamophobia!” There are two answers to this accusation. One is that Islamic organizations don’t have a vote until such time as they come to their senses, stop denying reality, and shoulder a big share of the burden their misguided brethren impose on all of us. Shouldering the burden would involve first and foremost making concrete proposals to improve on our common danger from violent jihadists instead of crying “Islamophobia.” Right now, they are worse than useless. Two days after the Christmas Day foiled terrorist act, none of the following organizations had any comments on its website: Islamic Supreme Council of North America; Islamic Circle of North America; Council on Islamic-American Relations. The latter had, prominently displayed, an article about an old fake accusation against a Muslim traveler. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported simply that Detroit area Muslim leaders did decry the bombing attempt and that they feared “retaliation” and the creation of a “climate of fear.” (Historical note: The fact is that not a single Muslim was murdered in America in retaliation for 9/11. My own very first spontaneous reaction on he morning of 9/11 was: What to do to protect local Muslims? My reaction was wrong, unwarranted.) The Arab-American Institute, an organization for which I have much esteem, had nothing. Al Jazeera in English had nothing by Sunday morning.
Here is a message about how to deal with protests from such organizations: It’s OK to punish mildly persistent collective irresponsibility. Being double-searched at the airport is a mild punishment.
My second response to the silly accusation of Islamophobia, is that allowing large numbers of Muslims to be killed without lifting a finger to protect them either is Islamophobia or, it’s worse than Islamophobia. The fact is that the hapless Nigerian traveling on the day of the main Christian holiday in order to explode an airliner over the largest concentration of Muslims in America (Detroit) was about to assassinate many Muslims. The young Muslim man subjected to the unpleasantness of double scrutiny at the airport will be protecting his mother, his sister and his children. As I keep repeating, violent Jihadists have murdered many more Muslims than they have Christians.
So, it seems to me that it’s simple to improve greatly on both our safety at home and on the chilling effect airport security measures have on our economic life and on our enjoyment of life. Someone is not doing his job or her job, not even thinking about it. And, by the way, nothing like the Christmas Day failed attack took place on Georges W. Bush’s watch.