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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What Israeli security could teach the US

I love Jeff Jacoby's columns, but I really did not want to see this article the day before I am planning to fly from Israel to the United States. Jeff points out how good Israeli security is and why - bli ayin hara (warding off evil eyes). For those of you who have never flown here, allow me to tell you a couple of stories.

Three years ago, I flew Tel Aviv - London - Boston and back with one of my children. Tel Aviv - London - Tel Aviv was El Al. On the way back, I had to go downstairs in London, identify my bags, open them, and ensure that nothing had been added during the courst of my first flight. They even made me open the box with my brand new computer (on which I am typing this post) because Homeland Security had put tape around the box indicating that they inspected it. When I asked the security personnel why I had to open the computer, she reminded me that "the people who blew up Mike's Place worked at Heathrow." She was right. But the Brits still haven't figured that out: Two weeks ago, it was reported that one of the terrorists who was arrested in connection with the plot to blow up planes flying between London and the US was a Heathrow employee with an all-area access pass.

The second story is a classic at El Al, and will show you that while they profile terrorists and that helps, they also think. On 17 April 1986, semtex explosives were found in the bag of a pregnant Irishwoman attempting to board an El Al flight. The explosives had been given to her by her Jordanian boyfriend and father of their unborn child Nizar Hindawi, and the incident became known as the Hindawi Affair. The pregnant Irishwoman was obviously not an Arab and the Jordanian boyfriend was not with her on the flight.

Anyway, let's hear what Jeff Jacoby has to say on the subject.
Nearly five years after Sept. 11, 2001, US airport security remains obstinately focused on intercepting bad things -- guns, knives, explosives. It is a reactive policy, aimed at preventing the last terrorist plot from being repeated. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so sharp metal objects were barred from carry-on luggage. Would-be suicide terrorist Richard Reid tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so now everyone's footwear is screened for tampering. Earlier this month British authorities foiled a plan to blow up airliners with liquid explosives; as a result, toothpaste and cologne have become air-travel contraband.

Of course the Israelis check for bombs and weapons too, but always with the understanding that things don't hijack planes, terrorists do -- and that the best way to detect terrorists is to focus on intercepting not bad things, but bad people. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El Al and Ben Gurion depends on intelligence and intuition -- what Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben Gurion, calls the human factor.

Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials constantly monitor behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger: bulky clothing, say, or a nervous manner. Profilers -- that's what they're called -- make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length. They probe, as one profiling supervisor told CBS, for ``anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit." Their questions can seem odd or intrusive, especially if your only previous experience with an airport interrogation was being asked whether you packed your bags yourself.


But because federal policy still bans ethnic or religious profiling, US passengers continue to be singled out for special scrutiny mostly on a random basis. Countless hours have been spent patting down elderly women in wheelchairs, toddlers with pacifiers, even former US vice presidents -- time that could have been used instead to concentrate on passengers with a greater likelihood of being terrorists.

No sensible person imagines that ethnic or religious profiling alone can stop every terrorist plot. But it is illogical and potentially suicidal not to take account of the fact that so far every suicide-terrorist plotting to take down an American plane has been a radical Muslim man. It is not racism or bigotry to argue that the prevention of Islamist terrorism necessitates a special focus on Muslim travelers, just as it is not racism or bigotry when police trying to prevent a Mafia killing pay closer attention to Italians.
Read the whole thing.


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