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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5762

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Profiling frequent flyers -- LIBERTY is threatened not so much by massive destruction as by minor erosion. Like when boarding an airplane. There should be few safer passengers than a Secret Service agent. But not in the case of Walied Shater, who was tossed off of an American Airlines flight Christmas Day.

Unfortunately, the dispute has degenerated into a typical "he said, she said" squabble. The captain and flight attendants almost certainly wouldn't have questioned Shater's credentials had he been a WASP. Indeed, the captain didn't bother looking over the Secret Service paperwork which he later criticized until the flight attendant complained about Shater.

However, Shater admits to becoming upset in response, which would put any crew on edge. He probably wouldn't have been ousted had he been less belligerent and his forms been in order. No one comes away looking very good. But it's a poor case for the government to sort out. Especially after Sept. 11, airline personnel should be allowed to decide who flies on their planes.

Still, people shouldn't be singled out for stupid reasons. When Shater first got off the plane before departure, the flight attendant rifled through his carry-on bag and found, horrors!, a book with "Arabic style print," according to American's incident report.

Shater was reading "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" -- in English. Passenger Mark Pueschel says that it was this discovery that so upset the crew. Such a volume is unlikely reading for a suicide hijacker. Yet security personnel are now easily frightened.

On a recent flight from Hartford to Washington, I carried a canvas briefcase and medium-size backpack. The screener was uninterested in the former but wanted to look through the latter. She dumped out the contents, laboriously combed through the individual items, and asked me to open my computer disk drive (an impossible feat). She then took the backpack to rerun through the machine, or so she said.

But I looked over and saw a man, who later identified himself as a United Airlines supervisor, taking my backpack and saying that he would handle it. He came over and asked: "Are you a collector." I said, "hunh?" He said that I had some strange clippings in my backpack, on bioterrorism.

In fact, I had a file of articles, from leading newspapers, on pharmaceutical regulation, about which I was writing a policy paper. The subjects included Medicare benefits, CIPRO and patent protection, AIDS in the Third World, the World Trade Organization, and responses to bioterrorism.

The latter accounted for but a small part of the file, but apparently unnerved the screener, who must have been scanning my articles when not trying to open my disk drive. I told the supervisor that I was a policy analyst and journalist, and that I had materials on other subjects, including military conscription, about which I was also writing. I showed him my business cards for the Cato Institute and Copley News Service and offered to pull up the draft policy analysis on my computer.

But he brought over a state cop and then wandered off with my driver's license to call in my name. The trooper pulled me aside and said roughly: "A lot of the stuff that they do is chickens--t, but we have to go along."

Eventually, it became evident that I was not listed as a suspected bioterrorist. My more than half hour of standing around wouldn't have been so bad if it actually had made anyone more secure.

But I obviously wasn't going to beat the flight crew with my clippings. And I wasn't carrying any envelopes of white powder. Nor did United Airlines pay the slightest attention to my explanation, one that was easy to check and hardly unusual for someone flying to Washington. Finally, if they really were worried, they should have hand-searched me as well as my briefcase -- which sat, unopened, on the security table for the entire time.

Some would say "better safe than sorry." However, treating innocent people as suspects is more than inconvenient. It chips away, ever so subtly, at the freedoms cherished by all Americans. Of course, liberty must be balanced with security. In Shater's case, airline spokesman Todd Burke explained: "we feel no one is above the approved security procedures."

Fair enough. But mindless "security" practices divert attention and resources from more serious threats. For instance, the three staffers dealing with me could have been monitoring service employees and screening baggage for bombs instead of standing around wondering why a nondescript, middle-aged WASP was reading articles about pharmaceuticals.

Americans understandably want to be safe. They should also want to be free. The real tragedy of cases like that of Walied Shater is that if we don't exercise eternal vigilance, we are likely to end up both less safe and less free.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


01/08/02: Trade, not aid
01/02/02: Treason by any other name
12/26/01: Preserving freedom in an unfree world
12/17/01: Dealing with terrorism's aftermath
12/10/01: Emerging friendships?
12/04/01: Uncle Sam: Insurer of last resort
11/28/01: Expanding the circle of trade
11/20/01: Free to be stupid
11/13/01: The meaning of compassion
11/07/01: Patriotic scoundrels
10/30/01: The coming postal raid
10/16/01: First, do no harm
10/12/01: Good news from a suffering land
10/04/01: Defending whom?
09/25/01: The wrong solution to the wrong problem
09/21/01: The price of terrorism
08/28/01: Uncle Sam's retirement scam
08/21/01: Canberra's quaint naivete
08/14/01: Uncle Sam's false fuel economy
08/08/01: The Clinton administration in drag
07/31/01: The high cost of government
07/24/01: Kill the campaign reform illusion
07/17/01: Do as I say, not as I do
07/11/01: Lawyers at play
07/05/01: Western blundering, Macedonian disaster
06/26/01: How best to honor Bill Clinton?
06/19/01: A maturing Europe?
06/15/01: Tell Beijing to mind its own business
06/06/01: Ukraine's boiling cauldron
05/31/01: Protecting privacy from Uncle Sam
05/22/01: America's Balkan quagmire
05/09/01: The Taiwanese flash point
05/01/01: Globalization serves the world's poor
04/24/01: Who's cheating whom?
04/10/01: The NCAA scam
04/03/01: Balkan stupidities
03/27/01: McCain doesn't want a 'risk for our country'
03/20/01: Dubious Korean alliances
03/06/01: Coercive patriotism
02/27/01: Bombing without end
02/20/01: A dose of misplaced outrage
02/13/01: Psst: Tax cuts for taxpayers. Pass-it-on
02/06/01: Bridging the unbridgeable gap
01/23/01: Left-wing demagoguery
01/16/01: The drug war problem
01/10/01: Politics and trade
01/03/01: Hope for liberty?
12/27/00: The debris of war
12/19/00: What's the rule of law for?
12/15/00: Ending silicone breast implant saga
12/05/00: Election may yield victor, but there are no winners
11/21/00: A Bush presidential mandate?
11/07/00: Exprienced Gore? Yeah, right
11/01/00: Interventionist follies
10/17/00: America's brightening prospects in Ukraine
10/11/00: GOP budget scandals
10/03/00: How a pharmaceutical 'crisis' was created
09/27/00: Clinton's empathy has helped nobody
09/13/00: AlGore's risky budget policies
09/05/00: Military readiness and Korean commitments
08/29/00: Let sleeping hypocrites lie
08/21/00: Targeting a journalistic pariah
08/15/00: European garrison for Kosovo?
08/08/00: Journalistic cleansing at the Boston Globe
08/04/00: Junk science on trial
06/22/00: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
06/15/00: The end of U.N. peacekeeping
06/07/00: The Clinton regulatory miasma
06/01/00: Administration stupidity, congressional cowardice
05/25/00: The silence of the international community
05/18/00: Protecting the next generation

05/11/00: Freer trade with China will advance human rights

05/04/00: How not to save the Constitution

04/28/00: American tripwire in Korea long ago disappeared: Why are we still involved?

04/18/00: Clinton administration believes the IRS is too gentle, wants more auditors

© 2002, Copley News Service