In fact, this approach is also ineffective and even counterproductive.
Terrorism on American internal flights is a low-frequency threat. It is hard to mount a sophisticated attack from within the United States in the post-Sept. 11 period. The number of potential suicide terrorists on planes is limited as is the number of good bomb-makers.
Four Views on Airport Security
- Why It’s So Horrendous -- Barry Rubin
- Airport Security Complaints: We've Been Here Before -- Robert Hardaway
- It's Time to Privatize the TSA -- Robert P. Murphy
- We Should Focus On Highway Safety Instead -- Leonard Evans
No doubt, the U.S. government will claim it has kept terrorists out of airports. But this is misleading. The Transportation Security Administration has never caught a terrorist at an airport. And why go through an airport nowadays with any reasonable level of security when you can look for relatively unguarded targets?
That's what terrorists do. Get your enemy to send all of his troops to guard someplace, then hit at a weak point. For good reason, then, terrorists have moved to other methods and targets. Attackers board passenger planes outside the United States or send freight on unchecked cargo planes.
Meanwhile, this massive security effort costs billions and harasses millions in a futile attempt to locate possibly one or two terrorists a year.
One terrorist puts a bomb in his shoes that doesn't work. Forever after, all shoes must be checked for millions of people? Terrorists plan an aborted attack using a gel. Forever after all liquids and gels must be banned and thus seized from millions of people?
Counterterrorism resources will always be limited. If they're thrown away on ineffective tasks that means less attention can be paid to the real threats. That's why the so-called Underpants Bomber and the Shoe Bomber and also the Times Square Bomber, and yes even the Fort Hood shooter, and others were not caught by the security system. It was too busy paying for people to pat down or X-ray Americans randomly.
Any security system that isn't completely stupid -- and likely to be ineffective -- must put the bulk of its resources into looking at those most likely to carry out an attack.
To do intrusive checks on documented American citizens who have no motive for committing terrorism is a waste of time. Put them through the metal-detecting portal, have them put their possessions through the X-ray machine. If needed, wand them or open bags. That's enough.
To speak of "racial" profiling of more probable categories of passengers is propaganda. Such people don't constitute a race and aren't being profiled because of their race any more than examining Germans or those from Communist countries in past conflicts was racism.
Is it better to inconvenience 1 or 2 percent of all passengers rather than all of them? Yes. Not only is this the greatest good for the greatest number, but it makes everyone -- including those who are profiled but innocent -- safer. And that's supposed to be the purpose of this whole thing, not as another demonstration of multiculturalism.
In contrast, it is important to have a high level of security for flights arriving from outside the United States. Yet here, too, the focus brought by realistic profiling is needed. Otherwise, the system is about to be overwhelmed.
Perhaps the ultimate weapon of terrorists is not to blow up America but to bankrupt it.
Ultimately, the current airport security system is not only excessive in terms of inconvenience or violating privacy but most of all because it is a terrible way to guard against terrorism.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are "The Israel-Arab Reader," with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); "The Truth About Syria" (Palgrave-Macmillan); "A Chronological History of Terrorism," with Judy Colp Rubin (Sharpe); and "The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East" (Wiley). Please visit the GLORIA Center for more information.