The North American airport security systems are a perfect metaphor for Western policies toward the Middle East. Consider my last two trips between the United States and Canada when each time I’ve been identified as a potentially dangerous terrorist. There was no interest about who I was or any evidence I could offer, each time silly things set off alarm bells against me while those who should have been watched more carefully walked through. In that way, the U.S. government has eagerly helped bring down the Egyptian government and subverted the security of Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (among others), while waving through Syria, the Turkish regime, Hizballah, and at times even Iran as no problem. Here is a brief account of my adventures.
Arriving in Canada, I was asked by the officer at the entry desk in Toronto where I was going to be and for how long. Thinking it was just a pleasantry (and subconsciously assuming he was just asking me about Toronto), I replied, “Toronto for three days.” Apparently, though, he looked at my tickets and, since I was going to Toronto AND Montreal for FIVE days, decided that this was worth checking out. I was ushered into a room, kept for about an hour, and questioned very sternly by an immigration officer. I was only carrying one light bag, by the way, so I don’t think someone might suspect I was moving in permanently.
I tried to explain who I was, why I was in Canada, to show documentation, and to give him phone numbers to call (including the Israeli embassy). He was totally uninterested and made it clear that nothing else would be considered but his questions to me. While I was cooperative, at one point he snapped, “I can send you back to the United States, you know.”
By this point, I was so put off that I replied, with careful politeness, “OK, I you want to.” Presumably, the people organizing my lectures would not have been as willing as I was to get on the next plane. Finally, after an hour, I was allowed into the country.
Returning to the United States, I was stopped at the X-ray machine. They were very polite (everyone I’ve ever dealt with at TSA has been) and after a long delay along with several questions, they explained that a hairbrush in my bag looked on the X-ray machine as if it was a big, dangerous knife. I can’t figure out why they just didn’t open the bag and look at it.
But the worst experience was on my next trip to Canada, right now as I write this article. My bag was flagged and I was taken aside, everything was removed, I was given a full pat-down (no, not that part, fortunately), they went over my bag about three times, and so on. About six or seven different TSA people were involved in checking me out.
Finally, they told me the problem: I had some explosives residue on my bag. I explained that I worked on strategic issues and counterterrorism, I was frequently around guns and soldiers, and on top of that I was a Civil War reenactor who took the bag with me to battles where it was exposed to black powder. Indeed, I had even accidentally left a small piece of gun-cleaning equipment in the bag. I gave them my passport (the TSA guy didn’t want to look at it) and offered to show material about myself to verify my story. Again, no interest.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone was very polite and professional. I have no complaint. But I was also (involuntarily) tying down a vast amount of resources that might have been better employed. Finally, the chief of security cleared me. They did warn, however, that I might face the same problem on my return trip. Apparently, new and even more sensitive devices have been installed.
I pointed out that being around explosives or gunpowder was not against the law. It shouldn’t matter to them if I had been sitting on a keg of nitroglycerine while eating breakfast, as long as I demonstrably didn’t have any of it with me. Having checked the bag repeatedly and removed every object should have settled that issue.
Moreover, I asked, don’t you have large numbers of soldiers and reservists, people in construction and other industries like agriculture (there are nitrites in fertilizer) constantly triggering these alarms? The answer was yes. So you can imagine how much effort, personnel, and money this takes away from looking for actual terrorists. Of course, once you decide not to profile, you have made certain that 90 percent of your resources will be wasted.
My problem used to be that I’m very loyal to my Israeli travel agent and I had her make all of my reservations. I eventually discovered that having a reservation made outside the country was a red flag. So (apparently they’ve changed that procedure) I’d always find myself subjected to extra inspections along with the Chinese grandmother while people wearing [political correctness deletions] and [ditto] and speaking [ditto] walked by unvexed.
My worst experience ever was when I was pulled aside and held in a U.S. airport as an alleged Palestinian terrorist because an extreme extreme right-wing Jewish activist accused me of being a…Palestinian terrorist. As the officer said to me before eventually letting me go, “You must have done something.”
When Janet Napolitano was asked recently whether it made sense not to focus on young males of Middle Eastern appearance who might be Muslims, she explained this was illogical. The problem wasn’t Islam, a religion, she correctly pointed out, but Islamism, a political ideology. The problem is, as a follow-up question should have asked, what group of people might be most susceptible to that ideology?* Presumably, not Chinese grandmothers and me.
Yet while closing down the idea of profiling plane passengers, Napolitano’s analysis opened up the idea of profiling countries and movements to see if they were Islamist. That’s a splendid idea. Unfortunately, it is not being implemented.
This refusal to “profile” for Islamism damages U.S. foreign policy and that of European countries. Since the Obama administration won’t profile for revolutionary Islamism or anti-Americanism, it has supported the Syrian dictatorship and the Turkish stealth Islamist regime, is quite ready to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s government or Hizballah in Lebanon’s, and can even find a moderate wing of the Taliban.
Imagine Obama administration policy as an airport security system. These countries and movements walk right on the plane but when, for example, Israel enters, alarm bells go off and it gets a full pat-down.
There’s something clearly wrong with both systems.
*P.S.: Of course, I’m aware that Western converts have been used as terrorists. But all that means is that personal profiling, behavioral profiling, and intelligence information all have to be used. I’m also aware that security people were doing their job of protecting us and I thanked them for it (well, not that obnoxious Canadian officer who clearly enjoyed flaunting his power). Yet the point is that the decisionmakers should be helping them do their job better.
P.P.S: Toronto to Montreal: Not too bad. Pulled aside and had bag thoroughly searched because I had a tiny plastic wrench smaller than the length of my finger. Got through that one pretty quickly.