- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

One positive thing seems to have resulted from the harrowing experiences described by Annie Jacobsen aboard Northwest Flight 327, where 14 Syrian men behaved in a bizarre, menacing way on a June 29 flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, and similar stories reported by this newspaper: the start of a long-overdue debate on whether political correctness is putting the traveling public in jeopardy.

We recently noted that former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the September 11 commission, objected to a federal policy subjecting airlines to fines if they subjected more than a fixed number of Arab males to added questioning during security checks. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta’s office complains that his department is getting a bum rap, and that no such policy exists.

There does not appear to be a formal quota system in place for screening passengers. But a considerable body of evidence suggests that, beginning in the Clinton years and continuing after September 11, something no less troubling has taken hold: a mindset and series of practices that discourage the use of common sense in deciding who should be permitted to board a plane.

Much of this is outlined in the remarkable testimony delivered June 24 before the Senate Appropriations Committee by Michael Smerconish, an attorney and radio talk show host from Philadelphia. Mr. Smerconish recounted a discussion he had with Herb Kelleher, founder and chairman of Southwest Airlines, in which Mr. Kelleher said that random screening (the silliness which often subjects small children and elderly passengers to added security scrutiny, known as secondary screening) was instituted by the Clinton Justice Department, which was concerned about equality of treatment.

DOT stated earlier this year that “secondary screening of passengers is random or behavior based. It is not now, nor has it ever been based on ethnicity, religion or appearance.” This raises an interesting question for Mr. Mineta: Given the reality that the September 11 hijackers had ethnicity, religion and appearance in common, does it make sense to ban any consideration of these factors in deciding who may board a plane?

Regarding the existence of an arbitrary limit on the number of passengers subject to extra screening, Edmond Soliday, United Airlines’ former vice president for security, told the September 11 commission that one Justice Department official informed him that “if I had more than three people of the same ethnic origin in line for additional screening, our system would be shut down as discriminatory.” Was Mr. Soliday making this up?

In his Senate testimony, Mr. Smerconish raised legitimate questions about DOT’s decision to levy a $1.5 fine against American Airlines — which lost 17 of its personnel on September 11 — for refusing to allow an American of Arab background to board a flight to Los Angeles at Logan Airport in Boston on Nov. 3, 2001. (The man was acting suspiciously, and his name was similar to one on a terrorism watch list, among other things.) We would welcome Mr. Mineta’s response — and an explanation of why he apparently takes such a dogmatic position against a limited, common-sense use of ethnic profiling at the airport — now very much a part of the modern battlefield.

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