Thursday, September 14, 2006

Leaving bad enough alone

A number of security "experts" have argued recently that airport screeners' focus on finding weapons is misplaced. Finding guns, knives, bombs, and bomb parts hidden on passengers' bodies or in their carry-on luggage is like finding a needle in a haystack - in a word, "hard." It would be much easier, and, they argue, much more effective, to focus on finding terrorists. After all, weapons don't carry out terrorist attacks, terrorists do. So, these experts would train screeners to read traveler's faces and body language for signs of the kind of anger, stress, and determination that are characteristic of terrorists.

My question is this - why would any reasonable person think that screeners would be better at spotting terrorists than at spotting weapons? Investigation after investigation has shown that screeners are, to use a term of art, "really bad" at finding even inartfully concealed weapons, not to mention artfully concealed ones. If screeners can't find guns, knives, and bomb parts right in front of their faces, what makes anyone think that they can distinguish between: the guy who's angry because he slammed the taxi door on his finger when he was dropped off at the airport, and the guy who's angry because we have troops in the Middle East; the guy who's sweating because he had to run through three football field-size terminals to get to the departure gate, and the guy who's sweating because he's trying to sneak a bomb onto the plane and is afraid of getting caught; and the guy who looks "determined" (whatever that means) because he's afraid of flying and is steeling himself to board the plane, and the guy who looks "determined" because he's hellbent on killing as many airline passengers as possible?

This is, of course, not to mention the separate issue of ethnic, racial, and/or religious profiling. Would it surprise anyone if, more often than not, those deemed to look angry or stressed or determined were Arabs or Muslim?

Sure, the Israelis do this, and it seems to work. But, no reasonable person would compare the capabilities of Israeli counterterrorist officials with those of American airport screeners. And, besides, for better or worse (I say, worse), Israel doesn't place the premium on civil rights and civil liberties that we do. (Perhaps if terrorism were to become a daily preoccupation for every American the way it is for every Israeli, we'd drawn the line between security and liberty differently. But, that's a different subject.)

If we can't make bad things (screeners' inability to spot weapons) better, it is better to leave it at that and not to make bad things even worse.