Airline security and "discrimination"

Hot on the heels of the report of the 9/11 commission, today’s edition of the Scotsman reports incidents suggesting that terrorists may have been carrying out dry runs for new attacks on aircraft in the US:

At least two flights are thought to have been targeted so far by groups of Middle Eastern men who appear to be forming a plan of attack.

On one flight an air marshal reportedly broke into an onboard toilet to find that a mirror had been removed and that a Middle Eastern man was trying to break through a wall to the cockpit.

The print edition of the paper includes an in-depth article,reproduced from, where one passenger, Annie Jacobsen tells a worrying story about a flight she took from Detroit to Los Angeles. Her account about how a group of men who boarded the flight separately but once on board seemed to group together and also behaved very suspiciously is worrying in its implications that they may have performed a dry-run for a terrorist act or even have decided to carry one out only to abort it. Admittedly the authorities later told her they were a bunch of musicians hired for a particular purpose but the behaviour reported was both alarming and odd even if this is true.

Worrying as the possibility of terrorists performing dry-runs for future attacks is, there seemed to be worse in the story:

During the 9/11 hearings last April, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman stated that “…it was the policy (before 9/11) and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that’s discriminatory.”

So even if Northwest Airlines searched two of the men on board my Northwest flight, they couldn’t search the other 12 because they would have already filled a government-imposed quota.

ISTM this policy is quite insane, and in the post 9/11 world positively dangerous. The reason that 14 men were worrying Jacobsen, some other passengers, the flight crew and some unnamed air marshalls on board that flight was not that they were of middle eastern origin, with Syrian passports, but because they were behaving in a very suspicious and alarming manner.

If airlines can be fined for trying to question more than 2 people from a particular ethnic minority on any single flight, this seriously hampers the ability of the airlines and airports to make sure that terrorists do not board their flights and can not carry out attacks if they do get on board.

Look at it from the terrorists point of view — they’re hardly going to ensure that any team they send on board a flight is composed of no more than 2 people from any particular ethnic background. Indeed knowing about this law they could even exploit it by having a 2 people behave in a manner that causes them to be questioned as a distraction from the rest of the team going about its plan.

If a group of passengers are behaving in a suspicious manner the flight crew should be empowered to take action regardless of what ethnic group they might be or how many of them there are. This is not discriminatory against any particular ethnic or religious grouping, it is merely discriminatory against people who seem to be up to no good. And it’s also exactly the sort of powerflight crews and airport staff need to be able to help prevent terrorist attacks. We can’t afford such stupidity post 9/11.

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