There have been several recent Al Qaeda plots involving American commercial airplanes: the 9/11 attacks; the attempted 2001 shoe bombing; the 2006 plot to bomb planes flying from London to the U.S.; and the December 2009 attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit.
Following each of these attacks and plots, there have been public calls to focus airport security on Muslims flying to the U.S., and on Muslims flying within the U.S. During times of public fear, some American Muslim travelers have been subjected to heightened scrutiny. For example, following the disruption of Al Qaeda’s August 2006 plot to bomb planes flying from London to the U.S., some American Muslims of Iraqi descent flying into the U.S. from overseas reported that federal agents in New York took their American passports; held them for several hours without food, water, or chairs; asked them if they ever had weapons training and what they thought about the Iraq war; and yelled at them and threatened to arrest them when they complained about the way they were being treated.
Arguments By Those Who Believe The Government Should Not Focus Airport Security On Muslims
1. Airport screeners should thoroughly interview and search all passengers, not just those who “look Muslim.” That will maximize safety.
2. There are a billion Muslims around the world, and millions of Muslims in the U.S. Only a very small percentage of these Muslims have attacked, or plotted to attack, airplanes. It would be a huge waste of the government’s time and money to interview and search all Muslim passengers, since most of them are innocent.
3. Collecting intelligence before passengers get to the airport is a more effective way to stop people who pose a threat. For example, the 2006 plot to bomb planes flying from London to the U.S. was stopped before any of the plotters got to the airport.
4. Airport screeners cannot effectively focus on Muslims, because they don’t always know who’s Muslim and who’s not. There are people of other faiths who “look Muslim,” like the Brazilian man who was shot and killed by British police on the London subway soon after the 2005 London subway bombings. The government will end up interviewing and searching millions of people who “look Muslim” but aren’t Muslim. Furthermore, there are Muslims of all different ethnicities; they don’t all “look Muslim” or have “Muslim names.” If the government focuses on people who “look Muslim,” Al Qaeda will use bombers of various races (like shoe-bomber Richard Reid) who don’t “look Muslim,” and they will get through the system because security will be focused on people who “look Muslim.”
5. Random interviews and searches are more effective than profiling, because they can catch a bomber whether he “looks Muslim” or not. Random searches can also turn up “innocent bombers,” passengers who have unknowingly been given bombs by friends or relatives. Because of limited resources, the government has to choose between focusing on Muslims or doing random searches. For every screener who is focusing on Muslims passengers, that’s one less screener doing random searches.
6. Ethnicity and religion are distractions from the most important warning signs. Screeners should focus on passengers who have recently traveled to certain countries; who appear to be anxious or sweating; or who are wearing bulky clothing or walking in an awkward manner (because they might be concealing weapons or explosives). Because of limited resources, the government has to choose between focusing on Muslims or looking out for suspicious behavior. For every screener who is focusing on Muslims passengers, that’s one less screener watching out for suspicious behavior.
7. Rather than devoting resources to screening people who “look Muslim,” the government should spend its money on better screening technology to be used on all passengers, so that all liquid or solid or powder explosives can be easily detected. In addition, the government should increase the use of bomb-sniffing dogs. If the government prevents weapons from getting on a plane, potential hijackers can’t do any harm even if they get on planes.
8. Focusing security on Muslims will alienate Muslims from law enforcement, make them distrustful of law enforcement, and make them less likely to report suspicious activity that may come to their attention in the future. If the profiling is particularly abusive, and if it sends the message that American Muslims are “not real Americans,” it could help Al Qaeda recruit supporters.
Arguments By Those Who Believe The Government Should Focus Airport Security On Muslims
1. The government does not have the resources to interview and search all passengers. Furthermore, there’s no reason to interview and search all passengers. Everyone who has tried to hijack or destroy American commercial airplanes from 9/11 to the present has been Muslim. For example, the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, is Muslim; his co-conspirator, Saajid Badat, who pled guilty after backing out of the plot, is Muslim. Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Tanvir Hussain, and Assad Sarwar, who were convicted of plotting to blow up planes flying from London to the U.S. in 2006, are Muslim. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a plane over Detroit in 2009 using explosives hidden in his underwear, is Muslim. Furthermore, even innocent Muslim passengers could be unknowingly carrying bombs given to them by Muslim relatives or friends. So the focus must be on Muslim passengers.
2. Most interviews and searches of Muslim travelers will not turn up any explosives or weapons, and those Muslim travelers will be free to go. But the only way to make sure that no Muslims get onto planes with explosives is to interview and search all Muslim travelers. After all, the government doesn’t know which Muslims have bombs, and which Muslims don’t have bombs.
3. Collecting intelligence before passengers get to the airport is one way to stop people who pose a threat. But the government does not have sufficient intelligence on everyone who poses a threat. For example, the government did not have sufficient intelligence on the 9/11 hijackers, Richard Reid, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before they boarded their flights. If these Muslims had been thoroughly interviewed and searched, they would never have been allowed to get on the airplanes.
4. Screeners may not be able to identify everyone who is Muslim, but they will be able to identify many people who are Muslim. Some Muslims who don’t “look Muslim” may avoid an interview and a thorough search, but the vast majority of Muslims will get interviewed and thoroughly searched. That will increase the chances of Muslim bombers being caught.
5. Random searches can be useful. But random searches would divert limited screening resources towards passengers who clearly pose no threat. The government will end up searching little old ladies. If only random searches are done, there is a greater chance that Muslim bombers will fall through the cracks, because not all Muslims will be interviewed and searched. But if random searches are used in addition to profiling, as a secondary layer of security, they can enhance security.
6. Screeners should certainly watch out for suspicious activity, in addition to profiling Muslims. But if the government only relies on watching out for suspicious activity, a sophisticated plotter could get through. Screeners will not detect plotters who are trained to remain calm, and who are not hiding bulky bombs. For example, the 9/11 hijackers used small knives. Richard Reid’s bomb was part of his shoe. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s bomb was part of his underwear. There is no evidence that any of these Muslims appeared to be anxious or sweating at the airport, or that they were walking in an awkward manner before they got on their flights. But all these Muslims could have been caught if they had been interviewed and carefully searched.
7. The government should use the best screening technology, but the government cannot rely completely on technology, because even the best technology is not foolproof. For example, Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were able to get explosives onto planes even though they went through metal detectors. Furthermore, the government may not be allowed to use the best screening technology, because privacy advocates oppose the use of body scanners at airports. So interviewing and searching Muslims remains important.
8. Profiling can be done in a way that does not alienate Muslims. Screeners should approach Muslim passengers in a friendly and respectful way, not a hostile way. There should be no attempt to humiliate. Muslims who cooperate should be treated like allies, not suspects. They should be publicly acknowledged and thanked by the captain once they board their plane. Furthermore, the government can give benefits, for example tax benefits or reduced airfares or upgrades to first class, to those who are subjected to intensive interviews and searches; this will help compensate for the additional burden innocent Muslims are asked to bear.