Sensibly Selective Screening
Increased airport scrutiny of travelers from Muslim nations is rational, not racist.


President Obama’s bold and unexpected decision to subject travelers from 14 mostly Muslim countries to increased physical scrutiny at airports has brought forth the usual denunciations, well represented in a collection of responses solicited by the New York Times. (The only Times commentator who seems to support the decision also argues that “those who intend to blow up airplanes are not necessarily bad guys,” a statement representative of her essay’s coherence.)
The by-now-familiar arguments against focusing scarce security resources on the places or populations of highest risk boil down to following:

1. Not every Islamic terror suspect “fits the profile.” We can call this the Richard Reid objection — since would-be shoe-bomber Reid was British with a Jamaican father. A large reason for such under-inclusivity is that we have no perfect marker for the Muslim faith. We use national origin as a proxy for religion, and a few Islamic terrorists, it is true, have come from the West.

If we did have a Muslim marker, the profile would describe all the suspects: All Islamic terrorists are Muslim. But even with an imperfect category like national origin, the fact that outliers exist does not undercut the validity of a statistical profile. In a world where security resources are finite and inadequate, focusing on the highest area of risk is simply sound management. The idea that you are more likely to catch terrorists by spreading those scarce resources even more thinly across a larger universe of remotely possible suspects is absurd. We are better off trying to shut down the threat where it is most concentrated than in pretending that all countries are equally likely sources of Muslim terrorist recruits. And Richard Reid was not caught by existing screening standards in any case.

2. Most people from the 14 countries are not terrorists. If over-inclusivity is such a problem, it’s hard to see how you cure it by subjecting everyone from every country in the world to equal levels of security. Public-health actions are also often both under- and over-inclusive, and this doesn’t undercut their legitimacy. Screening travelers from particular parts of the world where infectious disease is rampant, or banning their entry entirely, fails to stop some infected travelers while stopping many uninfected travelers. That imperfect fit does not mean that the health precautions are not fully justified.

3. Terrorists will easily defeat the “profile.” “Once aware of national profiling, terrorists will simply use people from ‘non-profiled’ countries or origins,” writes Times commentator Michael German, a former FBI agent. Actually, it’s not so “simple.” Islamic terrorists are already trying to recruit from as wide a base as possible, precisely to defeat the universal and valid understanding of the most likely source of Islamic terrorists. For all their efforts, they still find the overwhelming majority of their recruits from the terrorism belt that stretches from North Africa, through the Middle East, to South Asia. If switching the base of recruitment were as easy as the anti-profilers imply, we would have had a surge of Norwegian Lutheran Jihadists long before this.

4. We should do something else instead — a “something” that inevitably we are already doing in spades. “We need to focus . . . more on developing intelligence against terrorists,” says Times commentator Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Thanks for the great suggestion, Salam. FYI, we are trying to develop as much intelligence against terrorists as we possibly can; we are flooded with intelligence. And guess where most of that intelligence is coming from? Countries that Obama has selected for additional scrutiny. Does that intelligence-gathering constitute illegitimate profiling as well, in the eyes of Al-Marayati and the Council on American-Islamic Relations? In the U.S., Muslim advocacy groups routinely protest the FBI’s efforts to gather intelligence on potential Muslim terrorism, because that effort, too, focuses on — surprise! — Muslim communities. As for “behavioral profiling,” another favorite alternative offered by the anti-profilers, we’re doing that as well. TSA and other agencies train constantly in how to detect suspicious behavior. What President Obama has authorized is an extra layer of security to everything we’re already doing, targeted where it has the best chance of intercepting an unrecognized threat.