Racial profiling? Maybe, but so what?

Posted: Jan 07, 2002 12:00 AM
A Secret Service agent, Walied Shater, wasn't allowed to fly on American Airlines Flight 363 on Christmas Eve (he was on his way to the Bush ranch in Texas). The pilot felt that Shater was a security risk to his passengers. Shater and his lawyers see it differently. "The only reason he was not allowed on that plane is because he is an American of Arab descent," John Relman, one of Shater's attorneys, said at a press conference. "Pure and simple, this is a case of racial discrimination." American Airlines, which lost two planes on Sept. 11 and nearly lost a third two weeks ago to the notorious "shoe-bomber," denies that Shater's ethnicity was the decisive issue. In response to the lawyer's little show, they released the pilot's incident report, which includes numerous allegations that Shater was "nervous and anxious" and "confrontational" with the pilot. Shater was also packing a sidearm and carrying a book on Arab history in his bag. Shater isn't suing - yet -- and he claims he doesn't want to make this a big deal, saying in a statement, "It has never been my desire to make this incident personal." One might ask why he allowed his publicity-seeking lawyers to hold a podium-thumping televised news conference if he wanted to keep the whole thing low-key. Regardless, it seems clear Shater got a bum deal. My sense from reading the different accounts is that the Secret Service agent made the captain nervous in no small measure because Shater is of Arab descent and was carrying a gun. In turn, who would be surprised if Shater was abusive and confrontational as the pilot contends? That's a human response for anybody who feels like he's being treated unfairly, especially if it's a racial thing. So let's stipulate that racial profiling was going on here. Let's also stipulate the obvious point that the pilot was wrong about Shater being a threat. So what? Well, a lot apparently. The president says, "If he was treated that way because of his ethnicity, that will make me madder than heck." Making the president of the United States madder than heck is probably always worth avoiding. More relevant, though, are what his Shater's lawyers, various civil liberties groups and Islamic political activists want. Attorney Relman says, "It's not about money," which is never an easy thing to believe coming from a lawyer. He says they simply want to "get procedures and policies changed so pilots do not have unfettered discretion. ... It's about making sure this doesn't happen again when there is no legitimate security concern." Well, isn't it pretty easy to identify what a "legitimate" security concern is or isn't from the vantage point of a press conference at a Washington hotel? On Sept. 11, if pilots had barred Arab-looking hijackers from boarding their planes because they carried then-legal box cutters in their bags, these same lawyers and activists would have screamed bloody murder. Oh no, wait, there would have been no bloody murder, so they would have yelled "racism." To date, airlines cannot scan checked luggage for bombs at most airports. Just two weeks ago, Richard Reid was turned away from the American Airlines counter in Paris one day only to return the next and make it through. He carried bombs in his shoes. Reid isn't of Arab descent (though he is Muslim), but it's possible that if he had been, with his somewhat sketchy passport and cash payment for a one-way ticket, he might have been stopped before he got on the plane with his bombs. In short, we are still in a situation where an organization -- roughly 98 percent of whose members are Middle Eastern, and 100 percent of whom are Muslim -- want to kill airplane passengers in creative ways. Pilots and other crewmembers must be hyper-attentive to threats they never imagined before. At the same time, the culture and the lawyers are telling them that they must scrutinize Norwegian nuns and Chinese schoolchildren with the same intensity they apply to young Arab men (and there's some evidence they are, which is why another American Airlines pilot treated a Japanese tourist the same way he treated Shater the same week -- but that's received little attention). American Airlines and the president are basically conceding that any pilot who ever admits to, or gets caught, taking race into account will automatically be in hot water. This is stupid. Pilots are on the front lines of the war on terrorism and hence have to make hard decisions. Wouldn't it be better if they were occasionally wrong rather than told they can only use discretion when they are 100 percent sure they are right? Discretion and responsibility are meaningless, if those making decisions aren't allowed to be wrong - ever. It's like saying cops can't interview someone unless they're already sure he's guilty. Shater was unfairly inconvenienced. But so were the thousands who died or lost loved ones on Sept. 11, not to mention the millions of people who lost their jobs, changed their travel plans and generally rearranged their lives because of what happened. Is inconvenience such a terrible sacrifice? Or have we changed the slogan "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" to simply "Ask not"?