One month ago, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab boarded a plane in Amsterdam, bound for Detroit, with a bomb sewn into his underwear. Only the failure of his detonator to function properly and the quick action of passengers prevented Mutallab from detonating the bomb, destroying the plane, and killing the 350 people on board in the skies over Detroit. Mutallab is now in custody, but since his apprehension, we have learned that he was supported by Al Qaeda in Yemen, that his father warned U.S. officials in Nigeria of his jihadist tendency, and that he was on a terror watch list. Just today, Osama Bin Laden claimed responsibility, on behalf of Al Qaeda, for the attack.
The incident has sparked renewed debate about combating terrorism and security measures at airports. Although Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano initially asserted that, "the system worked," on the Sunday talk shows following the attacks, that assertion was clearly absurd. A terror plot that was thwarted by passengers on the plane is an example of system failure. In analyzing the Mutallab affair, most of the media have focused on the "warning signs" that he was a terrorist: namely his father's warning to the U.S. government and the presence of his name on a large (500,000 names) terror persons of interest list, but not the smaller no-fly list. The media have tried to ascertain why the warning of his father wasn't communicated effectively through governmental channels in a way that would move Mutallab's name to the no-fly list and prevent him from getting on the plane. Wasn't the purpose of establishing a Department of Homeland Security and a new Director of National Intelligence to facilitate communication of intelligence through government?
While this type of systems analysis is important, it, to some extent, misses the point. The security measures implemented at airports are supposed to prevent terrorists from boarding the plane in the first place. The Mutallab case is different in the sense that he boarded at a foreign airport, but as we all remember the 9-11 hijackers boarded domestic flights. We are all painfully aware of the measures taken at domestic airports in the wake of 9-11: the extra searches, the x-raying of shoes, the restrictions about what can be taken into the cabin and what needs to be in checked bags, etc... We accept such minor infringements on our liberty because we believe they make us safer and ultimately preserve our greater liberty by preserving our lives. But the Mutallab case raises an awkward question: do these measures really make us safer?
The Mutallab case illustrates the uncomfortable truth that our airport security measures are doomed to failure. I can recall seeing an interview with an Israeli government official on one of the Sunday talk shows not long after 9-11. He was discussing security at Israeli airports. There has never been a successful attack on an Israeli flight, so clearly they are doing something right. This Israeli official said something interesting. He said in Israel airport security is aimed at finding the terrorist, while in the U.S., security measures are aimed at finding the weapon. Hence we x-ray everything; we remove our shoes and jackets; we have to through away bottles of liquid larger than 4 ounces; and we can't take pocket knives, razors, or knitting needles; on the plane. The argument made by the Israeli official is that searching for any and all possible weapons is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack and, since many everyday items can be turned into weapons and many potential weapons can be ingeniously concealed, ultimately futile. To make our flights safer, we need to identify potential terrorists, people boarding the plane with intent to harm, and keep them off the plane.
Trying to identify potential terrorists instead of screening everyone equally (or selecting people randomly for extra screening) raises uncomfortable questions about racial profiling. As a nation, we are appropriately squeamish about pulling aside middle easterners for extra screening. However, there are big differences between trying to identify potential terrorists in an airport and racial profiling in law enforcement. The innocent black citizen who is unfortunately pulled over for, "driving while black," gains nothing from the experience. He is harassed, threatened with arrest if he isn't cooperative, and if in the end left to continue on his way, has lost precious time and gained nothing. However, the innocent middle eastern man getting on an airplane is threatened with no worse than being denied a seat on the plane and has an equally vested interest in the safety of the flight as everyone else that is getting on board. What he gains from the harassment is the knowledge that measures are being taken to make sure he arrives at his destination safely. I have a friend from Syria who told me a story about flying shortly after 9-11. He was about 30 at the time and flying without his family. The TSA agents were randomly selecting people for extra screening and pulled aside and elderly caucasian couple and passed him, a 30-year-old middle eastern man traveling alone, through. He was upset that he wasn't screened because he knew the grandparents in front of him were no threat to the plane, but for all the TSA knew, he could've been. Time was wasted on people who were clearly no threat, diverting resources away from potential threats.
However, shifting focus from finding weapons to finding terrorists really isn't about any kind of racial or ethnic profiling. It is about behavioural profiling. In 2003, flying back to the U.S. from Scotland, my wife and I experienced such profiling. We had flown in to London-Heathrow a week prior, spent a few days in London, a few in York, and ended the week with my wife's uncle in Scotland. Apparently, flying in to one airport and out of another raised a red flag and we were pulled aside. We were asked how we got from London to Scotland (even asked to produce train tickets when we said we had taken the train) and had the bags we were checking searched in our presence. From our subsequent behaviour and our answers, it was evident we were what we claimed, American tourists returning home, and that was the end of it. We had done only one thing suspicious and since there was nothing else suspicious about us, we were allowed to board the plane. Mutallab, on the other hand, acted very suspiciously. He paid cash for his ticket at the last minute; he was traveling alone; he had no checked bags; he was flying to Detroit, in December, without a coat. These behaviours should have identified him as someone who needed a closer look and that closer look could, and probably would, have found the bomb he was smuggling onto the plane. Sure terrorists may respond by trying to recruit people that don't fit the profile (but, realistically, is a middle aged English businessman named Simon Fletcher from Suffolk really going to be recruited in to blowing himself up for Allah?) and train them to avoid such suspicious behaviour, but we really need to force them to change their game. The Mutallab attack was amateurish and yet should have succeeded. That is unacceptable.
If we want to fly safer, the answer is not to invade our privacy further with whole body scans and more invasive searches. The answer is not to try to keep everything and anything that can potentially be used as a weapon off the plane. The answer is not to mandate where you can put your hands for the last hour of the flight. If we want to fly safer, we need to adopt airport screening protocols that attempt to identify the people that represent a potential threat to the flight, based on their behaviour, and keep them off the plane. We need to find the terrorist, rather than trying to find the weapon.