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Skip the Grannies: The Case for Airport Profiling

By Michael Smerconish

Five years removed from 9/11, it's time to admit that profiling is not a dirty word.

Profiling is street smarts by any other name. It's the common-sensical recognition that while America is not threatened by an entire community, she is under siege by a certain element of an identifiable group, and law enforcement needs to target its resources accordingly.

The failure to profile is a dereliction of duty on the part of an administration that has otherwise been willing to incur the wrath of civil libertarians as it aggressively fights the war on terror.

Only last week, in the aftermath of the thwarted attack emanating from the U.K., did the president appear to take a step in the direction of profiling when at last, he acknowledged with specificity those who threaten our survival:

"This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."

Hopefully now there will be a long overdue confrontation of the Emperor Has No Clothes charade whereby law enforcement is mandated to ignore the naked barbarism of radical Islam. The arrest of two dozen in connection with the latest, failed plan should change that. After all, they are the same-old, same-old. I refer to Messrs. Ali, Ali, Ali, Hussain, Hussain, Hussain, Islam, Kayani, Khan, Khan, Kha-tib, Patel, Rauf, Saddique, Sarwar, Savant, Tariq, Uddin and Zaman. To a person they are Muslim men.

Where some would highlight the slight differences among them - class, upbringing and whether they were raised Muslim or converted to Islam - I see the commonalities. Equally significant is who they are not.

They are not Americans. They are not urban blacks. They are not suburban whites. They are not Jews. They are not Hispanics. They are not members of the U.S. military, women, senior citizens or young kids. At a minimum, it is time to profile by exclusion.

Some are still standing in the way. Take Paul Stephenson, the Scotland Yard deputy commissioner, who, on the day the plot was made known, said:

"What I would want to say, and you would expect me to say about this, is this is not about communities. This is about criminals. This is about murderers, people who want to commit mass murder. This is not about anything to do with any particular community."

Wrong, Deputy Stephenson, I would not expect you to say that. And while this is not about a particular community, it most certainly is about people within a particular community.

More appropriate from London were the observations of Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Hastings correctly noted, "In every other area of criminal activity, we accept that some people are more deserving than others of suspicion."

He pointed out that police do not question women when seeking a rapist, don't round up short West Indians when pursuing a 6-foot white burglar, and don't arrest an elderly widow for car theft when security cameras captured an Asian male.

For years I have been advocating that the United States use this kind of street smarts in the war against radical Islam. I did not begin with any particular knowledge of the subject. To the contrary, whatever understanding I've obtained sprang from a common occurrence in connection with a routine flight.

In March 2004, my family of six was heading to Florida for spring break. At a ticket counter in the Atlantic City airport, my 8-year-old son was singled out for "secondary" or random screening.

I knew it was absurd, but I didn't complain, figuring it was the small price we all have to pay post 9/11. Common sense told me it was a terrible waste of precious resources.

Soon after my son's screening, Dr. Condoleezza Rice testified in front of the 9/11 Commission. Commissioner John Lehman floored me when he asked Dr. Rice this:

"Were you aware that it was the policy, and I believe it remains the policy today, to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that is discriminatory?"

I wondered what in the world he was talking about with his quota question. So I called Secretary Lehman and asked him. He told me that airline executives had said as much in testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

Lehman faulted political correctness and said "no one approves of racial profiling. That is not the issue, but the fact is that Norwegian women are not, and 85-year-old ladies with aluminum walkers are not, the source of the terrorist threat. And the fact is, our enemy is the violent Islamic extremism. And so the overwhelming number of people that one needs to worry about are young Arab males."

Lehman was dead-on. When I reported what Secretary Lehman told me in the Daily News, I incurred the wrath of the Department of Transportation. It said I was "wildly incorrect" in my reporting, where I had simply repeated the words of a 9/11 commissioner.

Then I had a chance encounter with Herb Kelleher, the legendary, ballsy founder of Southwest Airlines. He confirmed for me some of what Lehman had raised with Dr. Rice. So I kept digging. Later I learned the specific basis for Lehman's question regarding a quota system.

Edmond Soliday, former head of security for United Airlines, testified before the 9/11 Commission that "a visitor from the Justice Department who told me 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."

Soliday clarified his comments to investigative author Paul Sperry when he said that it was actually the assistant general counsel of the DOT. Soliday said the man "told me 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."

The DOT viewed any human profiling as discriminatory, even if it is based on statistical probability. As a result, Soliday said that United "loaded up the system with randoms to make it mathematically impossible to get three ethnics in line at the same time," including "soccer moms, Girl Scouts, and even little old ladies with walkers."

And there you have it, the origin of a PC policy that has hindered our ability to protect the skies on 9/11 and through today.

What I have learned since 9/11 about the absence of profiling in America's war on Islamic fascism has filled two books that I have authored. Since 9/11 we have seen the Madrid train bombings, the Bali nightclub bombings, London bombings on 7/7 and the most recent threat of a terror attack in the U.K.

My thesis remains unchanged. We are threatened by individuals who largely have race, gender, religion, ethnicity and appearance in common. To the extent we do not take that information into account as we seek to prevent a repeat of 9/11, we are still flying blind.

The president has finally acknowledged that some in a particular community seek to kill us. Hopefully his comments will set the tone for what is to come because his administration needs a mind-set change.

I say it's nice to philosophize about American peace, love and understanding, but right now we have a more important agenda. Like winning the war against radical Islam so that we are still around to engage in such dialogue when the dust settles.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and the author of Muzzled. He can be heard weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on 1210/AM in Philadelphia. Contact him via

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