Despite the lessons of 9-11, airline-security policy continues to operate on the premise that bigotry poses a greater danger to America than terrorism, handcuffing the ability of crews to protect passengers by dangling the threat of federal litigation.
Such are the findings documented by Heather Mac Donald in the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank.
Pressed by concerns about racial profiling when it was introduced in 1997, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System intentionally left out a passenger’s national origin, religion, race or sex in assessing the risk that an individual passenger might be a terrorist.
Consequently, the system employed random hits “to ensure that airline screeners would devote as much time searching Lutheran matrons from Minnesota as young men from Saudi Arabia,” writes Mac Donald.
Sept. 11, 2001, only spurred Norm Mineta’s Department of Transportation to heighten its sensitivity to ethnicity, threatening airlines with stiff penalties if they selected more than three passengers of the same ethnicity for additional scrutiny on a flight.
This “incoherent system,” Mac Donald contends, fails to acknowledge the 9-11 commission’s assessment that the “enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ [but] Islamist terrorism.”
[Nevertheless, Mac Donald says, the 9-11 report did not contain one word about what the proper role of Muslim identity should be in locating such terrorists.]
Department of Transportation lawyers have extracted millions in settlements from four major carriers for alleged discrimination after 9-11.
The threat of future litigation puts pilots, who are responsible for the safety of a flight, in the position of worrying about the possible ramifications of good-faith efforts to protect passengers, Mac Donald says.
American Airlines, for example, was taken to court over just 10 interventions out of the 23 million passengers it carried in the last four months of 2001.
The Department of Transportation, which brought the case, declared the airline’s discriminatory conduct would “result in irreparable harm to the public” if not stopped.
The allegation pertained to the months after 9-11 when public officials warned three times of an imminent terrorist attack and urged airline person to be especially vigilant.
Shoe bomber discrimination victim?
Mac Donald notes the DOT failed to mention in its complaint the case of Richard Reid, a Muslim who was kept off a flight from Paris to Miami. After French authories insisted he be cleared to board a flight the next day, Reid famously tried to set off a bomb in his shoe.
“Had he been kept from flying on both days, he too might have ended up on the government’s roster of discrimination victims,” Mac Donald writes.
Typical of the complainants in the case, she says, is Jehad Alshrafi, a Jordanian-American scheduled to fly Nov. 3, 2001, from Boston’s Logan Airport, the origin of two hijacked planes on 9-11.
Alshrafi was denied boarding after a federal air marshall told the pilot the passenger’s name resembled one on a terrorist watch list and that he had been acting suspiciously, creating a disturbance at the gate. Alshrafi later was cleared and upgraded to first-class on another flight.
The DOT insisted the Jordanian-American was singled out because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry, but Mac Donald argues that at least five other passengers of Arab discent were not given another look on the original flight.
In fact, she points out, on virtually every flight in which the DOT charged American Airlines with racial profiling, other passengers of apparent Middle Eastern or South Asian ancestry flew undisturbed, not to mention the thousands of others who traveled on other flights during that time period.
“Given the information presented to the pilot, the only conceivable reason to have allowed Alshrafi to board would have been fear of a lawsuit,” Mac Donald writes.
Although American Airlines vehemently denied guilt, it settled the action for $1.5 million, to be earmarked for more “sensitivity” training for employees.
Denis Breslin, a union official, spoke for the outraged pilots: “Pilots felt: ‘How dare they second-guess our decision?’ We just shake our heads in shame: ‘How could the government be so wrong?'”
DOT lawyers brought identical suits against United, Delta and Continental Airlines, who also insisted on their innocence but were forced to pledge more millions for “sensitivity training.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also has brought its own airline discrimination suits, including an action against Northwest Airlines seeking government terror watch lists, the airline’s boarding procedures and its cabin training manual.
“If these materials got loose, they would be gold to terrorists trying to figure out airline security procedures,” Mac Donald says.
‘Heavy on platitudes’
Mac Donald says the DOT guidelines on nondiscrimination rolled out 10 days after 9-11 were “heavy on platitudes about protecting civil rights” but “useless in advising airlines how to avoid the government’s wrath.”
The easiest summation of the department’s rules, she says is, “Deny passage to someone who is or could claim to look Muslim only under the most extreme circumstances.”
But when the threat at issue is Islamic terrorism, Mac Donald writes, “it is reckless to ask officials to disregard the sole ironclad prerequisite for being an Islamic terrorist: Muslim identity.”
Bush adminisration officials, she says, are unwilling to acknowledge a reality admitted unequivocally by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the influential Al Arabiya television station, after the Beslan, Russia, attack: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”
Mac Donald argues that while the government is concerned about racial profiling, the issue actually is religious profiling. But since religious identity is not always apparent, national origin or ethnic heritage should be available as surrogates, she contends.
In addition to individual discrimination suits, Mac Donald writes, the government has continued to apply “disparate impact” analysis on anti-terror measures — assigning bigotry to neutral policies if they affect different demographic groups differently.
This is suicidal in a war-fighting situation, Mac Donald asserts, effectively ruling out every security procedure that might be useful in combating Muslim terrorists.
Practically, it means a screening device for Muslim terrorists cannot by definition have the same effect on non-Muslims.
Mac Donald places much of the blame for the government’s “irrationality” regarding airline security on Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who has said a grandmother from Vero Beach, Fla., should receive the same scrutiny at the airport as a young Saudi male.
Mineta also has warned that the domestic internment used in World War II, of which he was a part, might be just around the corner.