Commentary Magazine


RE: Out of the TSA Scanner and into the Fire

I’m with Linda Chavez. The TSA’s body scanners and pat-down inspections may be tiresome and annoying, but it’s far from clear that there is a good alternative. As she points out, Charles Krauthammer’s suggestion to simply rely on profiling wouldn’t offer much of a defense against jihadist operatives, who are hardly likely to show up on a “martyrdom” mission wearing full tribal regalia. (That would more likely be a Saudi businessman.)

One of the things that make al-Qaeda and its affiliates so hard to combat is that they have been able to recruit all sorts of people, including not only Arabs but also Indonesians, Pakistanis, Europeans, and Americans. The only thing that all these terrorists have in common is their devotion to ultra-fundamentalist doctrines, but that is hardly something that can be noticed at a glance; it probably would not even be noticed in the course of  a typically perfunctory interview. True, they are also all Muslims, but they don’t necessarily advertise their religion — who, after all, could tell at a glance whether someone is a Pakistani Muslim or an Indian Hindu? Some people even confuse Sikhs with Muslims. Do we want to profile anyone who  looks “funny” or has a “funny” name? Anyone who is Muslim? Or Arab?

Mind you: I am not opposed on civil liberties grounds to profiling. To the extent that it is a useful technique, it should be employed by cops and airport security personnel alike. But alas, terrorists don’t fit any particular ethnic or racial category. Behavioral profiling is more useful: there are many actions that passengers take — such as buying a one-way ticket or paying cash or looking nervous in line or traveling from Yemen — that legitimately expose them to extra scrutiny. But even at its best, profiling is only one technique, and it is fallible — particularly because terrorists will go to great lengths to disguise themselves and blend in with their surroundings.

I don’t like being patted down any more than the next guy (unless it’s by Pamela Anderson!), but it does sound like a security precaution that makes sense. I can understand the backlash against TSA, particularly because of the sometimes inane way that bureaucrats will implement any policy, but body scanners and pat-downs are, I fear, part of the price of safety in this age of Islamist terrorism.