- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

Whatever else you might say about the September 11 hijackers cowardly, brave, something in between, whatever they certainly weren't inconspicuous.
Nine of the 19 were flagged for special security screenings that morning. That means if you were a suicide hijacker, you had about a 50 percent chance of being singled out for extra scrutiny not bad.
So, why weren't the hijackers stopped?
The answer to that question involves one of the nation's most stubborn and irrational pieties that against "racial profiling."
This article of faith lives on, undermining the nation's security, even after it contributed to the catastrophic attacks of September 11.
Although it is little known, profiling of a sort has been an official practice of the nation's airlines for years.
In 1997, an Al Gore-led federal commission recommended that a profiling system developed by Northwest Airlines called Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening be adopted by the industry generally.
But under pressure from Arab-American and civil-liberties groups, the commission insisted that profiling not rely "on material of a constitutionally suspect nature e.g., race, religion or national origin of U.S. citizens."
The profiles, instead, would use factors such as whether someone had bought a one-way ticket or paid cash for it.
Even this prompted howls of outrage. A dozen Arab-American and civil-liberties groups sent a letter to Mr. Gore warning that "the risks to privacy are enormous" and reminding him that "passengers check their luggage, not their constitutional rights."
The Justice Department duly examined CAPPS for evidence of racism and found none, although it recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to take steps to keep profiling from becoming discriminatory or insensitive.
The FAA obliged, focusing on preventing personal searches that might make flagged passengers feel uncomfortable. "Manual screening has been criticized by persons who perceived it as discriminating against citizens on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin and gender," warned the FAA.
No one flagged by CAPPS, therefore, would be searched on their persons, so they wouldn't even know they had been profiled.
Instead, their checked luggage might be screened for bombs, and attempts might be made to ensure they actually boarded the plane on which they checked their bags. (The pre-September 11 assumption was that no terrorist would get on the same plane as a bomb.)
The feds had hit on a perfect policy: sensitive, hands-free profiling.
This politically correct system had its intended politically correct result: According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, profiling complaints dropped from 27, when CAPPS first came online in 1997, to two in 1999, and finally none in 2000.
Because, presumably, no one was being stopped and questioned.
So, while nine of the hijackers were singled out on September 11, only their checked bags were more carefully checked. Apparently none of them was searched or questioned at the airport lest, presumably, they complain to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
And so, they went on their way.
If ethnicity and national origin were among the profiling criteria, all the September 11 hijackers would have been flagged. And if personal searches and questioning had been routine, a bizarre pattern might have become clear: Why so many Arabs in first class? Why so many box cutters?
The whole plot might have come undone.
Other countries have had exactly this experience. In a famous 1986 case, a pregnant woman booked on an El Al flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv was pulled aside. (Pregnant women don't usually travel alone.)
After questioning, it was discovered that, unbeknownst to her, her Jordanian boyfriend had planted a bomb in her carry-on bag that would have killed all 375 people on her flight.
But the United States still lacks the tough-mindedness that it takes to make suspicious people feel uncomfortable. And, on the issue of profiling, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's ignorance appears to be nearly invincible.
Mr. Mineta's Japanese-American family was interned during World War II. He implies at every opportunity that by standing in the way of ethnic profiling, he is preventing a similar enormity today. "A very basic foundation to all of our work," he says, "is to make sure that racial profiling is not part of it."
Never mind that more than half the people on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list are named Mohammed, Ahmed or both (for instance, Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali). Some things apparently are just more important like avoiding "insensitive" profiling.
In a famous 1949 case, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said that the Constitution is not "a suicide pact." Indeed, it isn't but maybe our racial politics are.

Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide