Thursday, July 22, 2004

The last thing this country needs is another terror attack from the sky. But that’s apparently what the terrorists still have in mind, if recent reports are any indication. “Flight crews and air marshals say Middle Eastern men are staking out airports, probing security measures and conducting test runs aboard airplanes for a terrorist attack,” Audrey Hudson wrote yesterday in this paper. This, along with a troubling account of 14 Middle Eastern men behaving strangely on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, written by Annie Jacobsen, a writer for Women’s Wall Street, paints a picture of a troubled U.S. airline system constantly being tested by terrorists, enticingly vulnerable and hamstrung by nonsensical transportation-security regulations.

Just 10 days after September 11, in fact, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta made it clear that airlines may not discriminate on the basis of race during security checks. In addition, Mrs. Jacobsen reports, “During the 9/11 hearings last April, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman stated that ‘…it was the policy [before September 11] and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that’s discriminatory.’ ” This isn’t a hollow regulation: In the three years following September 11, United Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines settled discrimination cases with the Department of Transportation for a combined $3.5 million. When it comes to keeping a closer eye on men of Middle Eastern descent — who have been almost exclusively responsible for attacks on airliners over the past two decades — the airlines have their hands tied.

To be sure, government should always to be careful to avoid racial or ethnic profiling whenever possible. Stopping only black people during routine traffic stops, for instance, is a clear violation of basic civil liberties. But in the case of airline security, when the price of staying faithful to our ideals could be paid in hundreds or thousands of innocent deaths, and the infringement of civil liberties is so minor, common sense must prevail.

Airlines should conduct these secondary checks with the utmost respect and courtesy, inflicting a minimum of embarrassment and discomfiture. But to ignore the fact that our enemies in this war are Islamist terrorists, and not elderly grandmothers or six-year-old boys, is a violation of government’s ultimate responsibility to protect the basic right to life of innocent Americans.

There will always be a tension between liberty and security, and despite the knee-jerk opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and other “watchdogs,” sacrifices must sometimes be made. As the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said, “[W]hile it is good that there be a world full of peace, fraternity, justice and honesty, it is even more important that we be in it.” Ben-Gurion’s words have even more urgency today.

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