Some profiling just makes sense

Tuesday , August 21, 2012 - 1:01 PM

Michael Smerconish

"I’m not saying we should only screen young Arab men, or that we should screen every young Arab man who gets onto a plane. But we cannot ignore the commonalities in age, gender, nationality, religion, and appearance of the 19 men responsible for 9/11 and other acts of terrorism. Some types of people need to be screened more than others."

I wrote those words in a book I published three years ago, reaffirming a position I’d stated many times in the last decade. In fact, I wrote a book on the subject in 2004: "Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11. And I’ve echoed those sentiments in countless columns.

Do I still believe that, given the complaints over passenger screening at Logan Airport in Boston? The New York Times reported that an airport program intended to detect the behaviors of terrorists has instead been used for racial profiling. The Times said passengers who fit certain profiles — such as Hispanics flying to Miami, blacks wearing baseball caps backward - are more likely to be stopped and questioned.

Despite that, my answer is yes. Law enforcement needs to take into account the similarities of any group members who have evil intentions. Political correctness should not stand in the way of street smarts.

I was drawn to this subject after watching 9/11 Commission member John Lehman question then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about testimony suggesting that our government had capped the number of individuals of a particular ethnic group who could be singled out for secondary screening at any one time. But, as I learned, the PC influence didn’t stop there.

Post 9/11, the Department of Transportation actually fined airlines that took into consideration the profile of the hijackers while seeking to prevent a repeat of the attacks. United and American - the carriers that each lost two aircraft and a total of more than 30 personnel on 9/11 - were each subject to "enforcement actions" that resulted in both paying a fine of $1.5 million.

Here’s the typical scenario for which they were reprimanded: A pilot, who has an obligation to remove anyone perceived as a threat, would be told that a passenger was acting in a suspicious fashion, or seemed of Middle Eastern descent, or had a name that was either on a watch list or similar to such a name. A pilot who chose to have the man questioned, at the risk of delaying his travel, subjected the airline to disciplinary measures. I was appalled by the government’s PC response then and remain so today.

We’d never tell an organized-crime task force to ignore Italian Americans while investigating La Cosa Nostra, and I’m certain no one told British intelligence to overlook the Irish while investigating the IRA in the 1980s. It’s vital that law enforcement be free to transcend all political boundaries — left and right.

The shooter who two weeks ago killed six people at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee was an Army veteran and neo-Nazi. Like the Oklahoma City bombers, he seemed to fit the profile that was discussed in a report from the Department of Homeland Security issued in April 2009 and titled: "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic And Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment."

The report was widely ridiculed in the conservative media, so much so that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for its issuance. Napolitano said she was most regretful over a footnote in the report which said that while there is no "specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence," such acts could come from unnamed "rightwing extremists" concerned about illegal immigration, abortion, increasing federal power, and restrictions on firearms - and singled out returning war veterans as susceptible to recruitment.

She should not have apologized, and it was hypocritical for those who embraced profiling when it targeted young Arab males to cry foul when this focus was published. After all, as even Fox News noted, just months before the issuance of the report, Homeland Security had released an assessment of left-wing threats, "focusing on cyberattacks and radical ’eco-terrorist’ groups like Earth Liberation Front, accused of firebombing construction sites, logging companies, car dealerships, and food-science labs."

This has never been about the pursuit of all members of a particular ethnic or racial group. It’s about freeing law enforcement of concerns over who might be offended when it is pursuing legitimate leads. Thank goodness Jose Melendez-Perez, the Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who deterred the presumed 20th hijacker from entering the United States in August 2001, didn’t listen to coworkers’ concerns about targeting a Saudi national.

The recent complaints at Logan stem not from the use of profiling but that the wrong profile was relied upon. There is no threat posed by African Americans with baseball hats on backward, or Hispanics flying to Miami. They are not, as a group, threatening national security. But if that should change, then those descriptions should be taken into account. Same with suburban, bald white guys.

Eleven years later, the lesson is the same: Everyone needs to be screened, some more than others. Who they are is constantly evolving.

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

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