Monday, January 4, 2010

On Airport Security

Over the past week or so, many pundits have been making the call that U.S. airport security ought to more closely resemble Israeli airport security, considering our evident lack of ability to stop Captain Underpants of Yemen (aka Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab) but for his broken detonator. To some extent, Israelis such a Rafi Ron already provide security at the nation's airports. The idea of keeping a calm checkpoint area, for example, is designed to make it easier to spot a nervous would-be terrorist.

Hands down, a greater focus on behavior and human factors in security would positively benefit the United States. In Israel, no one is asked to take off their shoes at the metal detector. If someone were truly a threat, he'd be detected long before. Finding a suspicious acting person is much easier than finding a pouch of non-metallic explosive in someone's underwear, and significantly less intrusive as well. In combination with current measures, psychological profiling would be a strong enhancement to American airport security.

That being said, it is important to remember that the security posture of the U.S. and Israel are very much different. The existential threat Israel faces as a country is more imminent than the threat from occasional large-scale attacks the U.S. faces. This means that Israeli security is designed to stop a different kind of threat than the U.S. must face.

And perhaps the biggest issue is that Israeli society is much more tolerant of invasion of personal privacy for security. Those who call for more intense, Israeli-style screening should ask why terrorists would limit themselves to airplanes. In Israel, patrons at restaurants, supermarkets, clubs, and universities are screened before entering. In the United States, this is probably not the most efficient allocation of limited counter-terrorism resources.

Israeli society also has a much higher tolerance for discrimination against minorities. And even in Israel, certain security measures have been subject to scrutiny. Until 2007, Ben Gurion Airport used to give different colored stickers for Arabs and Jews to put on their respective passports as they went through screening. The practice was stopped after complaints of discrimination from several parties, including the Nazareth-based Arab Association for Human Rights. One could argue that Israel's more delicate security posture warrants greater discrimination, but if even Israel has trouble finding the balance, the U.S. is sure to have difficulty as well. Many Israeli policies, if implemented in U.S. airports, would likely be the targets of lawsuits, and some of those lawsuits would be successful. Extra scrutiny for all Muslims or Arabs would likely be politically untenable in the U.S., not to mention ineffective, and against the very values the U.S. was created to preserve.

UPDATE 1/5/10:

Haaretz posted an article on its website this morning on new biometric security measures in at Ben Gurion airport, for your reading pleasure. Even Israel itself wants to move off of the security interview system.

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