Following an attempt by alleged al-Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a flight into Detroit on Christmas morning, President Obama requested that governments heighten security for U.S.-bound flights.
On January 4th, the Transportation Security Administration imposed tougher screening rules for passengers originating in 14 mostly Muslim nations:
View TSA Enhanced Security Screening in a larger map
Additional safety precautions following the Christmas Day incident initially included checks at flights gates, restrictions on leaving airplane seats and using electronics/blankets in the hour prior to landing.
But the new strategy is based mostly on enhanced screening techniques. It requires that passengers with suspicious behavior — as well as passengers who are traveling from or citizens of one of the 14 nations — undergo full-body and explosive-detection scanning, pat-downs, and extensive searches of carry-on baggage. Only four of the 14 countries are currently deemed state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. government: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
This citizenship-based profiling has been met with controversy. Opponents argue that it unfairly targets some passengers and violates travelers’ privacy. The ACLU disapproves of whole-body imaging technology.
Michael German, National Security Policy Counsel with the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office and a former FBI agent said:
We should be focusing on evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion, which would be both more consistent with our values and more effective than diverting resources to a system of mass suspicion,
Over-broad policies such as racial profiling and invasive body scanning for all travelers not only violate our rights and values, they also waste valuable resources and divert attention from real threats.
Singling out travelers from a few specified countries for enhanced screening is essentially a pretext for racial profiling, which is ineffective, unconstitutional and violates American values. Empirical studies of terrorists show there is no terrorist profile, and using a profile that doesn’t reflect this reality will only divert resources by having government agents target innocent people.
Profiling can also be counterproductive by undermining community support for government counterterrorism efforts and creating an injustice that terrorists can exploit to justify further acts of terrorism.
Many bloggers see the new efforts as superficial. Bruce Maiman writes:
How many of these procedures at the airport and on the airplane really work? They seem more like theatre designed to make you feel safer when in fact that do little to make you safer.
Tunku Varadarajan, Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and professor at NYU’s stern Business School writes about the aftermath of the failed attempt by the “jock-strap jihadist“:
The Transportation Security Administration went predictably into Pavlovian overdrive, announcing a series of new security measures that would take immediate effect. This is the other, less reassuring, side of the episodic nature of the terrorist threats against us. We seem always to react, never to anticipate—and in this form of hasty reaction, with its flavor of humiliation, and of having been outwitted by a wearer of dangerous underwear (or shoes), there lurk always the seeds of over-reaction…
The broader point is that we need, constantly, to recalibrate our bandwidth of stoicism. We are at war with al-Qaeda; that organization is doing its best to kill us. Our need is, of course, to make it as near to impossible for it to do that. But our reaction to each new threat must not be to grant al-Qaeda small, but important, victories, in the form of an imposition by the TSA of inconveniences on travelers that have not been thought through, inconveniences that are, themselves, a form of theater—the extempore theater of homeland security.
– Michael Ramirez