In response to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s Christmas Day attempt to down an airliner headed from Amsterdam to Detroit, the US Transportation Safety Administration is implementing a new system of passenger screening based on national origin:
Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, countries that are considered “state sponsors of terrorism,” as well as those of “countries of interest” — including Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen — will face the special scrutiny, officials said.
Passengers holding passports from those nations, or taking flights that originated or passed through any of them, will be required to undergo full-body pat downs and will face extra scrutiny of their carry-on bags before they can board planes to the United States.
The changes should speed up boarding of international flights bound for the United States while still increasing security beyond the standard X-rays of carry-on bags and metal-detector checks of all passengers.
The changes will mean that any citizen of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia will for the first time be patted down automatically before boarding any flight to the United States. Even if that person has lived in a country like Britain for decades, he now will be subject to these extra security checks.
Of course, concerns about American security are paramount for the Obama administration; and we should not forget that for every threat we hear about—Najibullah Zazi’s foiled plot to detonate homemade explosives in New York, or Abdulmutallab’s incompetent underpants attempt—there are dozens more that we do not. In a must-read feature for the New York Times Magazine, Peter Baker catalogues one previously unknown terrorist plot, to set of bombs at Barack Obama’s inauguration:
A group of Somali extremists was reported to be coming across the border from Canada to detonate explosives as the new president took the oath of office. With more than a million onlookers viewing the ceremony from the National Mall and hundreds of millions more watching on television around the world, what could be a more devastating target?
Scary stuff. It’s clear that terror will define this decade just as mightily as it defined the last. But this new airport screening policy seems to be—like so many bureaucratic fixes to past problems—a crude reaction to the past rather than creative prevention for the future. Spencer Ackerman points out that this policy, if in place on Christmas Day, might have caught Mutallab, but would not have stopped, say, Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber” who was a British citizen of Jamaican descent. Nor would it have stopped Timothy McVeigh, an American-born mass murderer, from destroying the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. And it certainly won’t protect the American ports, land borders, or food and water supply—targets vastly less protected and more liable to cause widespread, devastating harm than a single airliner.
But where this policy seems most incredible is not the extent to which it profiles based on appearance or on race but on nationality—a broad brush if ever there was one. What’s more, this new policy—dubbed “the Patriot Act of the sky” at The Root offices—seems prone to abuse and unwarranted expansion. We don’t yet know how the list of "countries of interest" came to be (though it is good that the US is finally acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s pernicious role in the new age of terror). But one hopes the next terrorist doesn’t come from the countries that just missed the list (I’m looking at you, Indonesia and Djibouti).
But the American move toward national profiling is most disappointing because it fosters none of the needed introspection from western nations about what is breeding radical extremism within its borders. As I wrote in the aftermath of the failed Detroit bombing, there is a strain of boredom, arrogance, envy, religious fervor and pure nihilism that is brewing among communities within many of these western nations now so fearful of every Nigerian or every Pakistani who attempts to move freely about the planet. Is a national strategy for addressing this glaring problem really so pie in the sky?
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.