December 31, 2009

Profile Me if You Must

I don’t want to be profiled at the airport. It has happened before, and I hate it. Volunteering for more isn’t what I feel like doing right now, but our airport security system is so half-baked and dysfunctional it may as well not even exist, and flying is about to become more miserable anyway. So rather than doubling down on grandma and micromanaging everyone on the plane, we might want to pay as much attention to people as to their luggage, especially military-aged males who make unusual and suspicious-looking travel arrangements. That’s what the Israelis do, and that’s why security agents take me into a room and interrogate me every time I pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Israeli airport security is the most thorough and strict in the world, as one might expect in one of the most terrorized countries. No plane leaving Ben-Gurion has ever been hijacked or otherwise attacked by a terrorist. The system works, yet you don’t have to take off your shoes in the security line, no one cares if you pack perfume from the duty-free in your carry-on, you can listen to your iPod 55 minutes before landing, and you don’t have to stand in front of invasive and expensive body-scanning machines.

The Israelis look for weapons, of course. You aren’t at all likely to sneak one on board. Just as important, though, the Israelis are on the look-out for terrorists. Who would you rather sit next to? A woman carrying shampoo and tweezers, or 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, even if he’s not carrying anything?

Israeli security agents interview everyone, and they subject travelers who fit certain profiles to additional scrutiny. I don’t know exactly what their criteria are, but I do know they aren’t just taking Arabs and Muslims aside. They take me aside, too, partly because of my gender and age but mostly because a huge percentage of my passport stamps are from countries with serious terrorist problems.

“Does anyone in Lebanon know you’re here?” they usually ask me. They’ve also asked if I’ve ever met with anyone in Hezbollah. I am not going to lie during an airport security interview, especially not when the answer can be easily found using Google. They know I’ve met with Hezbollah. That’s why my luggage gets hand-searched one sock at a time while elderly tourists from Florida skate through. I can’t say I enjoy this procedure, but I don’t take it personally, and it makes a lot more sense than letting me skate through while grandma’s luggage is hand-searched instead.

The United States need not and should not import the Israeli system. It’s labor intensive, slow, and at times incredibly aggravating. Americans wouldn’t put up with it, and it wouldn’t scale well. The one thing we can and should learn from the Israelis, though, is that we need to pay as much attention to who gets on airplanes as to what they’re bringing on board.

I don’t like being profiled, but the Israelis aren’t wrong for looking more closely at me than at, say, an 80-year-old black woman from Kansas or a 12-year-old kid from Japan. When I get on a plane in the United States, though, I often breeze past women decades older than me while they’re being frisked. Almost every single person in line knows it’s ridiculous. We don’t say anything, partly because we don’t want to get in trouble, and partly because it feels vaguely “fair.”

Maybe it is, but it’s no way to catch terrorists. And it’s not as if the only alternative is a separate policy for Arabs and Muslims. Racial and religious profiling won’t even work. Shoe bomber Richard Reid wouldn’t have been caught that way, and it’s probably safe to let a 90 year-old woman from Dubai through with minimal hassle.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 31, 2009 12:31 PM
...Hello,Michael Totten...

I couldn't agree more. But....and, it isn't like you you leave anything out...this time the omission which jumps up is the likes of the ACLU. For reasons beyond common sense the ACLU has been permitted to lobby itself into a very irritating and influential position.

Related, the melon-headed idea that extra layers of bureaucracy can help in this danger is also beyond common sense.

I haven't flown anywhere in years, actually not since an Air America reunion in San Antonio a few years ago...( that short story follow this post..)but I'm wondering what would happen now if I mentioned to the screener at National Airport near Washington that I was wearing a nitroglycerin patch on my chest and had a small extra supply of this nitroglycerin in my carry-on bag?
Posted by: Hrothgar at December 31, 2009 1:06 pm
....the short Air America reunion story of a few years ago when I separated from the rest of the check-in passengers and directed to "step this way"....
While there at the reunion we were given commorative medallions on blue ribbons. One side of this medallion had the phrase..."Commemorating Central Intelligence Agency Citation June 2001". I had mine ( had missed the original ceremony itsef at a previous re-union in June of 2001) in my flight bag and it was spotted at the x-ray table and the inspector wanted to see what caused that round shadow....I handed it over and he took it away to show his supervisor, that made me nervous, but when he returned and handed it back he said "Thank YOU."
Posted by: Hrothgar at December 31, 2009 1:30 pm
Great article Michael.

Nothing irritated me more in 2009 than seeing TSA confiscate 2 sealed aluminum cans of apple juice from a blind man with a guide dog, and a souvenir snow globe from a child.

Have a safe and successful 2010.
Posted by: Rob Fairbank at December 31, 2009 3:20 pm
Every time I leave Israel I am being questioned for half an hour or longer. It probably makes sense. For me it's a chance to speak Hebrew.

That doesn't help. :-) An Irish resident whose parents live in Germany and who speaks Hebrew well enough but clearly not often is not easily explained. I get why they ask me all sorts of questions.

Which synagogue do you attend? What is the next holiday you will celebrate? Do your parents go to the same synagogue (they are still in Germany)? Which synagogue do you attend? (Does the answer remain the same?)

It never bothered me.
Posted by: Andrew Brehm at December 31, 2009 7:29 pm
That's because the Israelis aren't slaves to the cult of political correctness the way we in the U.S. are. For crying out loud, white people, get over it already. Your white guilt is going to get us all killed.
Posted by: Carlos at January 1, 2010 8:37 am
...I agree that our current "political correctness" infatuation runs a great risk of disaster, but I don't understand what "white guilt" has to do with it....profiles are profiles; being a white male fits a profile also. We seem to pay too much attention to the loudest and most vocal and best organized resisters...namely the likes of the ACLU.

If it made any practical sense at all,, I'd "profile" all the ACLU-ers into a separate (OK, segregated..) terminal building for their own chartered aircraft with like-minded crews. No screening. No underpants inspections. No x-rays. Cool walk throughs expedited. But I'll remain segregated to fly only with those screened.

It's hard to put our hormonal emotions in any subordinate rank, but that's what will save our lives.

We're not "entitled" to be Jihadist free without giving up some previously taken for granted givens. A terrorist will slip through. They're apt learners. It's cat and mouse. Unfortunately we must work to keep up our guard in an alien interconnected world not necessarily of our choosing.

We're not "entitled" to fly. That's a recently emerged theme.

We should use the same system the Israeli's use....each potential passenger questioned from a very qualified agent seated before a computer screen.
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 1, 2010 6:35 pm
White guilt is the sole reason political correctness exists. It's your sense of guilt over being white, Western, affluent. It makes you do really stupid things, like profile little old swedish ladies instead of people who actually fit a profile. When historians look back on the fall of the West the way we do with the Roman Empire, trust me, entire chapters will be devoted to "white guilt" and the political correctness it spawned.
Posted by: Carlos at January 2, 2010 9:06 am
Carlos, nothing personal, but you can KMA on your white guilt theme.

Ron Snyder
Posted by: Ron Snyder at January 2, 2010 2:27 pm
...Carlos: so many others, you're not aware that mere "political correctness", as limp-wristed as it is, is trivial, and only a tiny domestic part of our current killing war, and most certainly not a cause of our current war. As a nation, we must wake up and know that the war we're fighting now is not limited to central and west Asia. It is here at home, right now, and this killing war is not fought on democratic principles and/or the proposed guidelines of anything such as an A.C.L.U.

You should look upon our current cultural-radical terrorism-religious war as a continuation of the Muslim sieges of Vienna and Poitiers/Tours. Consider those intervening years as a re-armament and re-alignment period. The Islamic premise behind this continuing attempted conquest had/has nothing to do with any so-called and irrelevent "white guilt".
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 2, 2010 3:44 pm
...correcting 'irrelevent' to read 'irrelevant'.
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 2, 2010 4:40 pm
Great article, Michael

I was in Sri Lanka back in November and many of their security procedures are similar to Israel...its one of the strictest in the world. I traveled in a hotel minibus and it was searched by armed soldiers even before we got to the airport perimeter. I also had to pass through two separate metal detectors, a pat-down search, a wanding, and a bag-search.

The security in the city is different and seems more focused on Tamils, since they are the ones who waged a violent campaign for decades...I was waved right through the security line in front of the world trade center while dozens of Sri Lankans were waiting and being searched.
Posted by: C.H. at January 2, 2010 7:38 pm
You guys are missing Carlos' point. Either that, or you are thick-headed as well. We, as a society, won't look at anything rationally or historically or realistically BECAUSE of white guilt. It is not up for debate as to whether or not it exists, at least to any serious person. It is indeed killing us.
Posted by: Kenneth at January 2, 2010 7:58 pm
...and you don’t have to stand in front of invasive and expensive body-scanning machines.


In July 2006 when I was going through the screening process at Ben Gurion with you, they put me through the invasive and expensive body-scanning machine.

Of course they let me get through with my camera, laptop and a bunch of other gear in my carry-on while they made you not only send your carry-on through checked baggage and re-arrange your packing. Maybe because the screeners liked the dead rat (fake) I put in my baggage, they let me get away with more...but I think it was my lack of conversations with Hezbollah in the past 12 months.
Posted by: Patricik S Lasswell at January 2, 2010 10:47 pm

What kind of machine did they put you through? I'm referring here to the one that show images of naked bodies on a screen. I haven't seen those in Ben Gurion, certainly have never stood in front of one, and according to the interview of the El Al security chief I linked, they don't even have any. Are you sure we're talking about the same thing here?
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 3, 2010 1:23 am
I'm a native born American caucasian---with no guilt. There are people sleeping in cold doorways in my hometown tonight; I walked by several today. Women and children are being exploited worldwide today. And their misfortune is not as a result of my actions. I agree that this irrational feeling of guilt for acts we did not personally commit is indeed killing us as a rational society.

When, for example, I read about "reparations" for past generations' actions I think of my Irish ancestors, arriving in America and seeking work, seeing signs that read "No Irish Need Apply." Am I therefore entitled to some compensation today for what they were subjected to? NO! That would be irrationality taken to its furthest extreme. Does such irrationality exist? Absolutely. And it needs to be recognized as such. And rejected.
Posted by: Paul S. at January 3, 2010 1:44 am
Good example, Paul S.

This irrationality of "white guilt" for all our various ills has taken hold and is spurred on by too many with chips on their shoulders resulting from, and perpetuating, over-simplified scapegoating. It's a circular effect. And, Kenneth...Of course it exists. But I don't think it's killing our society.

There is no place in the world where some kind of tribal/religious/racial/economic inequality and resulting stress does not exist. The "haves" are always very visible targets everywhere. Lots of "haves" aren't white folks.

Communism is a literally wonderful democratic theory, but human nature prevents it from working long term with large numbers. Society overcame communism after about seventy-some years. That's just a blink of an eye in "time".

"White guilt" explaining all of these problems remains an oversimplification of too many varied and complex inter-acting shifts.

Maybe, call it just a part of "Social Geology".
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 3, 2010 4:44 am
My wife lived in Israel, speaks Hebrew and goes back regularly. On her last trip, she took advantage of a long layover in Europe (never mind where) to go shopping in the city. When she got back to the airport, they grilled her thoroughly and she had no problem with it.
Posted by: greeneyeshade at January 3, 2010 9:24 pm
>>>"White guilt" explaining all of these problems remains an oversimplification of too many varied and complex inter-acting shifts.

Maybe so, but it's a great place to start. A first step. And until you people take that first step we will all be mired in this limbo of irrational, anti-intellectual political correctness. White guilt is that wrong first turn, after which all other turns are wrong as well. Go back, and start again. So sick of you white people and your damn guilt getting us all killed. Man up already.
Posted by: Carlos at January 4, 2010 1:47 pm
....drop it, Carlos. It's past time to blow on those embers....
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 4, 2010 3:30 pm
I've left from Ben Gurion four times now since 2006. I am a late-middle-aged, tall caucasian blue-eyed blonde professional with no other ME nations on my passport (OK -- Jordan for a one day trip to Petra). I'm working on a novel involving Syria and Israel and PTSD, so I have done extensive internet and personal research.

My first trip out was a week before Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and security in the country was on extremely high alert - they knew something was coming. My passport was checked 8 different times, but then I went through the standard 2-minute interview, no problem.

It was even less cumbersome in 2007 -- I'd met with a bunch of IDF and ex-IDF PTSD specialists. In 2008 I'd made a spontaneous trip to Nablus and (inadvertently) met with some Hamas supporters, and I expected a hassle at the airport, but no problem.

In 2009 I attended a meeting in Jerusalem, visited friends, etc. I was bringing something back that I knew US Customs would frown on -- something perfectly OK if it went first through a European middleman, but not licensed for direct import -- and I was a little concerned an Israeli hand-check might mess up my careful packing, so to speak.

I knew BG security wouldn't care about it, but still, I was just a little uncomfortable thinking ahead. And they smelled that hint of guilt or anxiety and were all over me -- always very polite and benign, but I got bumped up to the final level before the little private room and full interrogation; finally the floor supervisor took one look at me, snorted, let me through.

Whatever they're watching for, they are really, really good. TSA doesn't have the kind of personnel (BG screeners are often recently discharged after 2-3 years in IDF, esp. from military intelligence) or the training (3-6 months in-depth interviewing and behavior analysis from what I've heard), and they sure don't have the mind set. Israelis discriminate risk factors both objectively and subjectively and present themselves as a fairly neutral screen so the traveler's behavior stands out -- TSA regards everyone as equally risky and treats everyone rudely, obscuring subtle behavioral distinctions.
Posted by: AZZenny at January 4, 2010 10:05 pm
Bingo!...and thanks, AZZenny, for zeroing in on the key part...that the Israelis use a finesse and subtlety which we have yet to learn and apply, if I've read your comment correctly.

..."TSA doesn't have the kind of personnel (BG screeners are often recently discharged after 2-3 years in IDF, esp. from military intelligence) or the training (3-6 months in-depth interviewing and behavior analysis from what I've heard), and they sure don't have the mind set."

Count me among those who think the Israeli's should be our close consultants and instructors; hopefully they already are, behind the scenes, as we Americans don't seem to have the innate potential to be very good at this, as we seem to permit our attentions to be diluted from so many directions.

We need much thicker skins in order to dismiss all of the present carping criticism from those without direct and applicable responsibilities in this field.
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 5, 2010 9:39 am
In order to emphasize the perpetual (...the Islamist's word...not mine...) nature of our killing war we seem to have so much trouble admitting among ourselves, check out the following from the 'Middle East Quarterly", an article by one Raymond Ibrahim, Winter 2010. The title of the article is "Taqiyya-Islam-Rules-Of-War".

You can bring up the site on your own via Google. (Typed links here understandably look like spam openings.)

The point is that airliner-bombers and U.S passport abusers are only part of a larger sophisticated kit which is justified via their Quran. They adapt to the moment, so must we. Apparently they interpret conflicting verses to suit the moment's need. We have to learn to do some difficult anticipating in another culture. So far, we don't seem trained for this, which results in the hassles we Americans may have at our own borders.

Trouble is, we have little or no margin for error.
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 5, 2010 2:02 pm
Correction:'s a better title which I've cut and pasted...let's see if it worked...

"How Taqiyya Alters Islam's Rules of War
by Raymond Ibrahim
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2010".

That's it...take a look.
Posted by: Hrothgar at January 5, 2010 2:12 pm
Post a comment

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Read my blog on Kindle

Sponsored Links

Buy a used boat

Shanghai Hotels

Yachts for sale

Recommended Reading