The Problem with Post-9.11 Airline Security Policy

Do I look like a terrorist? No, seriously – I’ve been told I look “intimidating,” and cameras all seem to hate me on sight – but if you saw me boarding a plane with you would you worry that I posed a threat to your safe and timely arrival at your chosen destination, especially if I were wearing a business suit?

I don’t know how you answered this question, but I must scare the mortal hell out of the good folks working airport security. How else can I explain the damned-near automatic frequency with which I’m “randomly” selected for secondary security checks whenever I attempt to board a flight?

Since the new year I’ve taken several trips – mostly business – flying to Las Vegas, Anaheim, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Toronto via Frontier, America West, and Air Canada. Early on I noticed I was getting yanked just about every time I hit security, so I started keeping count.

The results: I have now encountered the airport security process 14 times in the last two months, and have been pulled for further screening 11 of them. That’s about a 79% clip.

Now, I don’t yet have all the data I need to understand precisely how bad I’m being tooled with. I need to know what percentage of all travelers are pulled, and I probably also need a bit larger sample size in order to arrive at statistically meaningful conclusions. From just observing what happens at the gate, I’d guess that they’re pulling maybe 5% of people “at random.”

But 11 of 14?! I think I have enough data to be justifiably annoyed, and more than enough to begin formulating a research hypothesis. It’s actually gotten so bad that I’m getting a little paranoid. Have I somehow gotten onto a secret government list of People to Keep a Close Eye On? Some of my friends think I probably do get pulled because of how I look (although I don’t recall any of the September 11 hijackers being bald white guys with goatees). And they also believe it’s entirely possible that the contents of this Web site might have attracted the attention of government cyberspooks. I don’t know that I’m quite that paranoid yet, but I have to be honest: I’m getting there, one pat-down at a time.

My own personal carping notwithstanding, there is a larger question here of how we establish security policies that are fair, workable and effective in the post-9.11 world. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal essentially calls for overt racial profiling by airport security, saying:

No one disagrees that at this moment in history terrorists come overwhelmingly from the ranks of radical Islam; it follows logically that screeners ought to give special scrutiny to Arab-Americans, Muslims and others who fit into certain other ethnic categories. This isn’t discrimination; given the threat, it’s common sense. The innocent will suffer at most a few minutes of inconvenience, but the possible benefit is hundreds of lives spared.

Now, this is a troubling question, isn’t it?

On the one hand, I do understand where the author is coming from. We’re so PC-obsessive about avoiding the appearance of racial bias that, as the WSJ editorial put it, “U.S. policy seems to be to search just about everyone except Arabs and Muslims, the very groups most likely to belong to the terrorist al Qaeda network.” Maybe it’s time to rethink our policy along lines informed by what actually happened with the al Qaeda hijackings.

This is a seductive line of reasoning, and one that gains a little more strength every time an innocent bystander is inconvenienced. But it’s also important to remember that there are a number of very Caucasian loons loose here in the homeland that we’d do well to keep a very close eye on. Timothy McVeigh didn’t look remotely Arabic, and there’s precisely zero reason to think he wouldn’t have flown a 747 into the World Trade Center if he’d had the wit and means to pull it off. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be on a plane loaded with under-scrutinized Republic of Texas types, you know?

So what’s the answer? I’m really not sure, but we need to find a better solution than the ones we have at present. My boss says that Israel has a pretty effective system whereby people can apply for something like a security clearance card. They do an extensive background check on you, and if they conclude that you’re no threat to hijack a plane, you’re issued an ID card that exempts you from things like secondary security checks. (If anybody reading this knows more about how the policy works, please let me know.)

Would something like this satisfy me? Tough question – tougher than it looks on its face, to be sure. I shouldn’t have too much trouble passing a background check, despite my apparently thuggish appearance. I’ve never been arrested and have no prior affiliations with subversive organizations (unless you count my Ph.D. program). Hell, I even lectured at an Air Force Public Affairs conference a couple years ago, and you’d think something like that would earn you a couple bonus points.

And the convenience of bypassing security shakedowns would sure be a major selling point. The whole getting patted down by security thing – jeez, there are altar boys on camping trips with the parish priest who get less action than I do. And the gods know I’d love to avoid having my bags reverse-engineered every time I have to take a business trip.

On the other hand, I don’t especially like the idea of being investigated by my own government, which probably already knows a lot more about my private life than they have any reason to. Nazi General John Ashcroft has conclusively demonstrated that he will seize on any opportunity that presents itself to strip from us whatever rights he can, and we’d all do well to think about the larger implications of our actions when it comes to signing away our civil liberties. We’re talking about a policy that would routinely subject Joe Citizen to the same sorts of investigative scrutiny historically reserved for suspected criminals and politicians. I’ve never been fingerprinted, and would very much like to keep it that way, but something tells me that printing (and who knows what else) would be a required step for certification (kind of like it is for concealed carry permits, I believe).

So how much privacy would I trade for how much convenience?

I don’t know off the top of my head. This is the devil’s bargain of the contemporary wired consumer world, isn’t it? But it seems that having such a policy as an option would, at the very least, solve some of the congestion we face at checkpoints these days. And we Americans do love choices.

Stay tuned. I plan on finding out more about who gets extra security scrutiny and who doesn’t. I don’t know with what frequency Middle Eastern travelers get pulled for secondary screening, or Latinos, or Blacks, or Asians. But you give Osama bin Laden himself a shower and a shave and I doubt he’d get yanked 79% of the time.

Clearly, I’m doing something wrong.

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