The war on terrorism, which began nearly four months ago with the barbaric attacks against our nation on Sept. 11, has taken a turn for the better. The cruel Taliban regime has been routed, leaving behind an Afghanistan whose future finally may be looking up. Al Qaeda's ability to operate in that country has been seriously disrupted, if not destroyed, and the success of America's military campaign will likely make other nations think twice before harboring terrorists. Yet the issues in the war's homefront are far more complex than the war in Afghanistan. There are almost infinite numbers of battlefronts and a seemingly endless array of threats to guard against. And perhaps not surprisingly, we're struggling a bit.
Two personal experiences during winter break made me question the effectiveness of the methods being employed to protect our "homeland security." The first made me feel that we are relying too much on superficial judgments based on a person's appearance — some would call it "racial profiling" — while the second suggested that we aren't profiling enough. My conclusion: We have a long way to go before we find a happy medium. On New Year's Eve, I went to New York City to watch the ball drop in Times Square. I was loaded down with a video camera, a digital still camera, two spare camera batteries, three spare videotapes and more than a dozen spare AA batteries for my portable television and Walkman. I was also wearing electrically heated gloves and socks, both powered by D batteries and both with wires running through them.
Especially after the "shoe bomber" airline incident, I fully expected to be stopped, searched and closely questioned by police officers guarding the New Year's party. Despite having tons of potentially suspicious-looking equipment on my person, I was barely searched. I was only subjected to a cursory check, and then allowed right through into Times Square. I could think of only one possible reason for this: I am white. I have red hair. I don't look anything like the guys who hijacked those planes.
Is that enough reason to let me through? Is it right that a Muslim or Arab carrying the same equipment as me probably would have been thoroughly searched? In these unique and tumultuous times, I don't quite know what's right, morally or ethically. We can't ignore the obvious fact that the vast majority of the people targeting us are Arab and/or Muslim, but at the same time, we can't assume that anyone who looks Arab is a terrorist. But forget morals and ethics. What I'm really concerned about is more pragmatic — who's to say the next bomber won't be a 20-year-old Irish guy, like my friend Ryan Meaders? Who's to say he won't be English, or German, or black, or Hispanic or Native American? Is it so inconceivable that Islamic terrorists could convince someone who doesn't "look the part" to carry out their dirty work? (Ever heard of John Walker?)
Given the potential effectiveness of such a strategy, it seems safe to assume they will attempt it at some point. And there are more than enough mentally deranged people of all ethnic backgrounds that such a thing is hardly a remote possibility. Think Columbine. Think Oklahoma City. Think anthrax-tainted mail. These incidents make me wonder whether I should have been searched more carefully at that checkpoint. By contrast, my other experience over the holidays gave me pause to wonder whether some elements of our homeland security infrastructure are being just a little too sensitive to concerns over personal profiling. As I was boarding a plane at Newark Airport a few days ago, many travelers were subjected to "random" checks of their baggage and their person before they could board.
Yet none of the folks I saw being searched looked like they had the ability or desire to steal someone's seat, let alone hijack a plane. Most were middle-aged women. Meanwhile, out of the group that I waited in line with, only myself and a large, muscular man in his 20s made it onto the plane without being checked. This struck me as a bit ridiculous. I probably couldn't overpower anyone on a plane, but I would have a better chance than any of the 50-year-old ladies whose bags were being searched, and the muscular guy had a better chance than any of us. Yet the "random" check system allowed the only two remotely plausible hijack threats, him and me, onto the plane without a second look.
These two incidents are just one person's isolated experiences. But they point to a larger issue. As a nation, we face a real dilemma here. How can we prepare for all possible threats, no matter how unlikely, without wasting our time searching people who are so outside the "profile" that they are almost certainly benign? The Richard Reid "shoe bomber" saga offers one answer: all of us must be prepared to quickly respond to any threat at the moment it materializes, regardless of who the potential perpetrator is, or what he or she looks like. But if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say, then how can we prevent these incidents from happening in the first place? The short answer, of course, is that we can't — not entirely. There is no such thing as total security, not even in a benign police state (as if such a thing exists) and certainly not in an open society like ours. But to come as close as we possibly can to real security, we need to stay the middle course, avoiding temptation to swing too far to either side of the debate over racial profiling.
If the far left had its way, we would be forced to totally ignore the most significant common characteristic of the individuals who have attacked us and are likely to attack us in the future: they share a similar ethnic and religious background. On the other hand, if the far right had its way, we would treat all Arabs and Muslims as potential terrorists. This would not only violate our principles but would also leave us totally vulnerable to attacks by non-Arab, non-Muslim sympathizers and recruits. There are no easy answers. But perhaps the most important advice for all of us is to make our criticism of our homeland security institutions constructive rather than bellicose and self-righteous.
I understand why the policeman in New York did what he did, and I understand why the airline personnel at Newark did what they did. I don't consider the police racist or the flight crew naïve, and I wouldn't call them that. I would make my criticism polite and to the point, as we all should. We are all in a brave new world, and all of us — whether liberal or conservative, civil libertarians or war hawks — should start off 2002 not sniping at each other, but thinking constructively about finding the best security formula for these troubled times. No one knows the right solution yet, and the only way to find an acceptable one is by ensuring an open dialogue continues and keeping all sides of the debates and discussions going.