If invasive body searches of all airline passengers really made us safer and helped us win the relentlessly escalating war the Islamists are waging against us, it would be our duty to quit whining and accept those searches like patriots — with grace and good humor. That’s how everyone I knew in the 1940s felt about wartime restrictions like blackouts and air-raid drills. Good-natured griping aside, we accepted them without resentment, because we believed they made America safer, and helped us win the war. Believing that, we cooperated to a fare-thee-well, making compliance near universal, policing ourselves, mostly, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, family by family, all over America. In doing this, we felt we were adding our small but necessary bit to the war effort, actively partnering with our government to win the war and bring our boys home.
Seeing long lines of barefoot American travelers being mechanically strip-searched or manually groped gives me a very different feeling. They don’t look like active, patriotic citizens partnering with anybody. They look like pieces of freight, being handled by government agents who dehumanize them by treating them like packages to be inspected for what they carry, not people to be judged friend or foe by their words and deeds. That doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me fear we are losing the war, here, as in too many other arenas, by letting our enemies trick us into defeating ourselves.
On the 69th anniversary of America’s entry into World War II, we should recall that we won that war thanks, in major part, to the courage, grit, and wit of the men and women in our armed services. But we should also recall that we couldn’t have done it without the wholehearted support of the overwhelming majority of the American people. Today, we have men and women in our armed services who are as capable and courageous as any in our history, but we have nothing like the popular support for the war effort that we had in World War II, and no wonder. In the 1940s, we had FDR and Truman doing their damnedest to cheer us on to victory. Today, we have a president who will not consistently admit that America is at war, let alone name our enemy. At most, he will allow that violent jihadis are at war with us, when in fact, all Islamists are. That’s what an Islamist is: someone who is working to bring down our government and replace it with sharia law. Some Islamists do this overtly, staging violent attacks on us and on our allies, in the sky and on the ground; others work covertly, infiltrating and subverting our institutions.
All have the same aim, but Islamists in the subversion business know that the blindness of the Obama administration is not their only big advantage. Their other major weapon is a wildly exaggerated political correctness that leaves too many of us with a conviction that discrimination is always a bad thing. That’s the thinking behind the knee-jerk negative reaction a dwindling but still significant number of Americans have to the idea of profiling. Many suffer, too, from the same gross overgeneralization in reverse: the idea that treating all people equally is always a good thing, even when it means dehumanizing everybody.
To reconnect American citizens to the fight we are in, we must go back to treating them like people, and the only safe way to do that in our airports is to profile everybody. Of course, we must pay heightened attention to people who come from and/or are traveling to Muslim lands. And, of course, not all Muslims are Islamists, but because all Islamists are Muslims, we need to profile every Muslim passenger, and every traveler to and from Muslim lands. Islamist organizations will protest vociferously, but the many Muslims who want to win the war against the Islamists as much as we do won’t mind. They are eager to distinguish themselves from our mutual enemies and are disheartened when we refuse to do so; they would cooperate gladly, given the chance.
But those who argue that doing this would allow us to safely give everyone else a pass are dangerously mistaken. First, many Islamists and Islamist supporters look no different from average Americans, and machines that strip them naked don’t make them any easier to distinguish. Second, Islamists have used unwitting couriers to transport bombs for them, and neither old people nor children are immune from being used in this way. After all, it is no harder to hide plastic explosives in an old woman’s pill box or a baby’s diaper than it was to put them in Richard Reid’s shoes or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underpants.
Finally, Islamists don’t need explosives to be dangerous. Just think of 9/11. Furthermore, too many Americans have yet to grasp the profound, dehumanizing hatred these people feel for us. To see it in action, read about the savage and prolonged torture the Hezbollah thugs who hijacked TWA 847 inflicted on the handful of American military men on board, before finally finishing off 23-year-old Navy diver Robert Stethem.
The bottom line here is that the only way to be reasonably sure there are no Islamist threats on our airplanes is to profile everyone, first by collecting and connecting relevant information on all would-be passengers when they make their reservations, and, second, by questioning every passenger before he or she is allowed on the plane. Invasive searches are needed, if at all, only for the tiny minority of travelers who fail to give satisfactory answers to reasonable questions. That’s how the Israelis handle security, and unlike us, they have yet to allow a passenger carrying explosives onto any of their aircraft. There aren’t many Islamists of any kind on board either.
What sort of questions do they ask? Are they obnoxious or embarrassing? It has been seven years since I last flew El Al, and, although old women like me are unlikely terrorists, I was profiled like everyone else. I still remember the questions the Israeli security agent asked me, and my answers. The agent who asked them was a pleasant young woman who sat down next to me in the waiting room. I answered her without having to stand in line, remove my shoes, or choose between being irradiated or groped. Here are the six questions she asked, and my answers:
Q: Who are you traveling with?
A: I’m traveling alone.
Q: What is the purpose of your trip?
A: To write a series of articles for NRO.
Q: Where will you be staying?
A: At the King David in Jerusalem.
Q: For how long?
A: Three weeks.
Q: Who bought your ticket?
A: I did.
Q: Who packed your bags?
A: I did.
Can simple questions like those really reveal anything significant? Well, consider the answers given by another unlikely terrorist, a young Catholic woman from Ireland, working as a maid in a London hotel. She, too, was traveling alone. The purpose of her trip was to get married. Her London-based Arab lover had told her he wanted their wedding to be in Israel. He had bought her ticket, packed her bags, and left London for Israel a few days before she did. She didn’t know where she would be staying, or for how long; only that he would meet her plane. On the basis of these answers, the Israelis didn’t search this poor woman. They rushed her bag to a secure area, found the bomb that would have killed her and everyone else on the plane, deactivated it, and sent her home, shaken, but alive and well.
Given these advantages, why don’t we move to an American version of the Israeli system? Some commentators who acknowledge the superiority of the Israeli system tell us it’s because we can’t: The size difference between our two countries makes it impractical. Bill Kristol, on Fox News, pointed out that we have a much larger number of air passengers a year than the Israelis do. That left me puzzled, however. After all, we have a much larger population than Israel does, so it is unclear to me why the number of passengers we have should be such a formidable obstacle.
Is it a question of cost, then? Writing on Foreign Policy’s website, Annie Lowrey argues that it is. If our security agents questioned each of our passengers for ten minutes, we would need 3 million full-time agents, at a cost “somewhere north of $150 billion a year.” But that’s a far-fetched assumption. Israel doesn’t spend anything like ten minutes questioning each passenger, and there is no reason why we should. I didn’t have a stopwatch in any of the waiting rooms where I watched Israeli security agents questioning my fellow passengers, but I’m confident that two or three minutes would be much closer to the truth. Except, of course, for the minuscule minority whose answers, actions, or itineraries flag them for more intensive scrutiny.
Evidently, Lowrey’s did, because she reports that the Israelis “questioned me for about 20 minutes, politely and intensely — why I was there, what I had seen, where I had been, who I had met with, where I had stayed. They repeated questions. They took notes. They switched off. One member went through my bag item by item, swabbing and testing for residue. Finally, she led me through a set of doors, and wished me a good flight.” Lowrey doesn’t seem to have grasped how unusual her experience was, perhaps because she didn’t see any other passengers being profiled. She reports that Ben Gurion airport was virtually empty when her profiling took place, another highly unusual circumstance. Blithely making assumptions about the cost of the Israeli system on the basis of this one grossly atypical instance is beyond unusual. It’s reckless and wrong.
All things considered, it seems fair to conclude that the biggest obstacle to a safer, more humane, and more effective system is a psychological one. We can continue to treat our people — in airports and elsewhere — like passive, anonymous packages to be mechanically inspected and handled, or like citizens whose active cooperation our government needs and wants. At this point, the choice is still ours to make.
— Barbara Lerner is a frequent contributor to NRO.