Wednesday, August 3, 2005
Random checks of bags on subways won't stop terrorism anymore than random prostate exams would eliminate cancer. Instead, we need to focus our resources and concentrate on checking the people most likely to blow things up.
Fighting a war, especially one on our own soil against an unseen enemy, requires dropping the politically correct notion that we're all equally suspicious looking. Clearly, terrorists could use a sweet old lady as a suicide bomber, but the odds are remote. Searching that old lady's bag is simply playing bad odds - like betting on a three-legged long-shot at the track.
I'm a white Jewish guy with black hair who currently has a tan and hasn't shaved in two days. It's reasonable for police to look at my appearance and subject me to a quick search to determine that I am simply lazy and disheveled, not dangerous. That isn't racial profiling it's common sense.
Racial profiling is when there's a crime in a predominantly white neighborhood and every black guy within 15 miles is rounded up even though nobody has a description of the perpetrator. It's not racial profiling if someone saw a short, dark-skinned man rob a Hollywood convenience store and Gary Coleman gets questioned as he walks by the crime scene.
The public has such a strong desire to combat terrorism that it's willing to throw support behind any crackpot security measure that makes them feel safer. Mostly this has resulted in a lot of random, ineffective searches of people who don't fit the terrorist profile.
I experienced this completely misguided, albeit well-intentioned effort on a recent trip to Copley Square in Boston. Before parking in a garage attached to the Prudential Center, a large mall and the city's major convention center, a guard searched the trunk of my station wagon. Basically, he popped open the door and quickly surveyed the contents - mostly baby gear for my 18-month-old son - and waved me through.
He neglected, however, to open the latch to the inside storage compartment of my backseat which contained a variety of potentially suspicious objects. In addition to my laptop this area held a basketball and two sealed boxes which actually contained metal brackets but could easily have harbored explosives.
Of course, were I actually a terrorist, it's unlikely I would have stored my weapons of mass destruction in my trunk since even basic recon work would have prepared me for the search. A clever bad guy could store his evil tools under his car and a dumb one would likely have eluded detection had he stuffed them under the seat.
In the war against terror our own desire to show how understanding we are in not suspecting anyone even when everything about them cries suspect will lead to our downfall. You can't search every car and concentrating efforts on a reasonably well-dressed man in a light blue station wagon packed with baby toys makes little sense.
People love to say that it's better to do something than nothing at all. That might be true if all your resources were being well-spent. It makes little sense, however, when most of our anti-terror efforts go towards showing how not prejudiced we are.
It's impossible to cover every base and make the world totally safe. But, if we judiciously use our resources, we can increase our odds of getting lucky and stopping an attack.
Daniel Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.