December 6, 2005
For Our Safety, Some Profiling Must Be Done

By Dennis Byrne

And now a defense of profiling, by screeners at airport security points.

Paying more attention to people who look and act like they might be terrorists is sensible, not racist. I had hoped that this would have been accepted by now, but judging by the recent number of people who have been "deeply offended" by the idea, I guess it hasn't.

The latest licking was applied to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who stumbled into the fray on some artless words about how "some" Arab men from terrorist-producing countries ought to be given more intense scrutiny because, well, that fits the profile of the 9/11 terrorists. That makes sense, or is at least a legitimate issue for debate, without anyone holding his breath and turning red-faced if Kirk doesn't grovel.

Among the ham-handed denunciations and condemnations, one from a coalition formed by the Chicago Council on American-Islamic Relations, lumped Kirk together with bigots who illegally "practice discrimination on the basis of religious, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation or national origin." They implied that he was no better than the bigots who assigned Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. Kirk should be angered, not cowed, by that kind of exaggeration.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) patted Kirk's head for being a nice guy but said his remarks represented a "cavalier" attitude toward civil rights. One might respond that Kirk's critics have displayed a cavalier attitude about the safety of American airline passengers.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she was "deeply offended" by Kirk's remarks, and I'm deeply offended that she's deeply offended, so she should apologize to me. She was deeply offended in front of a cheering immigrants' rights group, saying that Kirk's kind of thinking led to the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. No, this kind of thinking might have spared nearly 3,000 people from gruesome deaths from hijacked airplanes.

So, what would Kirk's fuming critics have us do? Not much, judging by the number of words they devoted to the subject. Here's what the council had to say: "Across-the-board security measures along with targeted intelligence, and not shots in the dark, are the surest ways to thwart terror."

This is what "across-the-board" security means: A young couple with 1- and 2-year-old kids was heading home after a trip on which everyone, including the pregnant mother, got sick. The kids hadn't had anything to eat and their plane's departure was nearing. At the security checkpoint, they were pulled out of line, and everything--zippers, compartments, stroller, car seat and diaper bag--were inspected. The mother began sobbing in frustration over being stuck at the airport with hungry, sick and overwrought kids. The next person in line was so "deeply offended" that he demanded of the manager why the family couldn't be let through. Sheepishly, the manager said he had no choice. Having one-way tickets (because they began their trip in one city and ended it in another) meant the screeners had to check everything, including baby shoes, for explosives, as if this couple would blow up their own kids.

True story. It happened to my daughter and her family more than a year ago, and I hope that screeners since have become more selective. Bureaucratic inflexibility that requires a search of baby shoes is a waste of time and money.

Last week, Homeland Security said 4-inch scissors and 7-inch screwdrivers now would be allowed on board, apparently because screeners were spending too much time confiscating knives and screwdrivers. I don't get it, but officials say they can better concentrate their resources without looking for these weapons, and I hope that's true.

Besides, they said, cockpit doors are locked and lots of air marshals are on board, so fear not. That's probably not much comfort for a passenger or flight attendant with a 7-inch screwdriver at their throat, held hostage by a terrorist demanding entrance to the flight deck. Will the answer from within be, "Sorry, bud, you're expendable."

Obviously, a balance must be struck between passenger security and civil liberties. The screeners have a tough enough job striking that balance without being flogged with irrational, ideological dicta. Coming down entirely on the side of no profiling is wrong and itself is a threat to everyone who flies. That's something that people have a right to get upset about, without being stamped a bigot.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and consultant. E-mail:

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