The Journal Editorial Report | February 11, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
February 11, 2005

Pros & Cons of Profiling

Paul GigotPAUL GIGOT: Joining us for this part of the discussion is Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written for the Journal on security issues often. Heather, welcome to the program.

HEATHER MAC DONALD: Thanks so much, Paul.

PAUL GIGOT: You wrote for us in December about this airline case: "Since the charges against the airlines were specious but successful, every pilot must worry that his good faith effort to protect his passengers will trigger federal retaliation." What was the Bush administration thinking when it brought this case?

HEATHER MAC DONALD: Paul, we know they were thinking in a pre-9-11 mindset. But what's scary is they're continuing to think like that after 9-11. And the basic premise of this lawsuit was that law enforcement is always a pretext for bigotry.

Let's look at the facts against American Airlines, which was forced to cough up 1.5 million in settlement. Three months after 9-11, 24 million passengers flew on American airlines. Ten men were asked to go through additional security measures. Most of them were allowed to board right away. Some had to take the next flight. On all of those flights with the 10 men, there were Arab Americans or Arabs who flew without any problems. The government claimed that this was invidious racial discrimination on the part of American, and said without a law suit there will be irreparable harm to the public.

Now this is the sort of thinking we're used to from the ACLU, from various victims' rights groups. But from the government, it's simply preposterous. And the thing that I worry about most, Paul, is that this tells pilots who are acting in good faith under their legal mandate to protect passengers, that they have to second guess their own security decisions.

PAUL GIGOT: It's interesting to me that this hasn't changed, this mindset, since 9-11. Dan, what accounts for that? Why haven't they made that adjustment?

Daniel HenningerDAN HENNINGER: I think it's because of the pressure in the public square over security and privacy issues, and the pressure on the government to be sensitive to privacy issues and rights and all that. I kind of think the world divides into people who think security is really important, and you have to make some compromises to achieve it, and people who simply don't feel that strongly about those things. And their mindset is never going to change. And no one will resolve that. I don't think there's any perfect compromise to make both sides happy. But what it requires is some leadership from the government to say, "this is the direction we're going in," and fight against law suits like that.

HEATHER MAC DONALD: That's true. But what we're seeing now is the government is in a pincer bind, because when they try to give law enforcement officers discretion to look at people's behavior, those officers get slammed for so-called profiling. When the government says, okay, we'll try something else -- which is to do this smart and use data to try and verify people's identifies -- then as you say the privacy rights advocates say, oh, heaven forbid anybody know my name when I'm flying on an airline -- which was basically what the government wanted to verify, that you are who you say you are. We got rid of that program, which was called Caps 2. So we're left with the dumbest possible security, which is physical pat-downs. And people object to that as well.

PAUL GIGOT: Well sure, it's a huge inconvenience. And they say, geez, I'm taking grandma to Florida for the holidays and she gets searched, but meanwhile somebody else who might look at they might -- a strapping young male -- doesn't because of the random nature of this.

How do you respond, though, to the woman we met that was in the taped piece, an Islamic woman, Muslim woman, who was stopped, and an American citizen, and of course she didn't turn out to be any threat. And she said, "Well, why pick on me simply because I look like I'm Middle Eastern?"

Heather MacDonaldHEATHER MAC DONALD: There was not a chance that she was picked on simply because she looked Middle Eastern. Because again, I can assure you that on many, many flights there have been people who look Middle Eastern that have flown without being stopped. We don't know the facts of this case. Most likely, my guess is, is that her name matched something on a "no fly" list.

I would say to her that we all need to ratchet down our sense of personal outrage a little bit. It's not such a big deal. We don't even know if she was allowed to fly on that flight. Don't get all hot under the collar. This isn't about you, personally. Don't take it personally. This is for the greater public good. And believe me, if we have another 9-11 attack, everybody's going to be up in arms to the government: "Why weren't you preventing this?" So it's a very tough situation the government's in.

But I would say, understand that we experienced the most extraordinary attack in our history on our soil. We have Osama Bin Laden calling on Muslims to attack Americans wherever they can find them. The real problem here is Osama Bin Laden. He's the one that isn't playing by affirmative action, non-discrimination rules. He should start calling on Jews and Catholics to join his crusade. Until he does, though, it seems to me that it is perfectly rational to have some part of the security decision -- not exclusively by any means -- but to take into account apparent ethnic or religious background.

Melanie KirkpatrickPAUL GIGOT: Melanie, we only have about 30 seconds left. Michael Chertoff was confirmed this week, I guess, as Homeland Security, or is about to be confirmed.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: He's about to be confirmed.

PAUL GIGOT: Will he made a difference in this subject?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: He could. I think more than anybody in America, Michael Chertoff has thought about these issues. He was in charge of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department after 9-11, so he prosecuted a lot of terrorists. He's been a judge, he's been a federal prosecutor, and he's been a U.S. attorney. So he might handle the job.

PAUL GIGOT: He's seen it from all sides.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Yes, he's the right man for the job.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, thank you, Melanie. Next subject.