September 21, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Profiles and Courage

I'm writing this on my laptop in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight delayed due to weather. But I can't complain. I didn't spend long at the security check. On the other hand, had I been a terrorist, would I have been caught before I killed?

I'm not confident. At most large airports, there are areas where scores of travelers congregate – at ticket counters, for example, and in mazes leading to the metal detectors and x-ray machines. What would prevent a suicide-terrorist with a backpack of explosives from mingling with those crowds — and detonating at will? 

The solution is probably canine: a dog trained to smell explosives. But four years after 9/11/01, there are not many deputy dogs on duty. And those there are – I spotted one in Atlanta – are not getting within sniffing range of many passengers. Train and bus stations also need knowing noses.

At airport security checks, only a few passengers are selected for interviews and careful searches, and such selections are random. More effective would be profiling — but not racial profiling.

Racial profiling is not useful for determining who is more likely than whom to attempt to hijack an airplane. Mohammed Atta, Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid and Jose Padilla represent diverse racial backgrounds; so, too, such terrorism supporters as John Walker Lindh and Adam Gahan. 

How about religious profiling? Most Muslims are not terrorists — indeed, Muslims are more likely than Jews or Christian to be the victims of terrorism. However, most terrorists nowadays are Muslims. For that, blame the terrorist masters. Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are not equal opportunity employers. When they have openings for suicide-bombers, they rarely recruit infidels.

Even so, there is no easy way to “religiously profile” at an airport. How would you determine who is a Muslim? Ask — and an innocent Muslim will answer truthfully; the terrorist will lie. Similarly, though clothes can provide clues, a Militant Islamist on a murderous mission can be expected to avoid distinctively Muslim garb. 

So if racial and religious profiling is not a good idea, what kind of profiling is? Terrorist profiling — which simply means utilizing all the knowledge that has been gathered over recent years about those who have committed acts of terrorism: what they've done, how they've lived, where they've been and how they've behaved.

On 9/11/01, America was attacked by 19 terrorists. Every one of them – a statistically significant 100% — was male, young and from a country where influential elites support and encourage Militant Islamism. 

Does that suggest that security officials should give more attention to a young man from Saudi Arabia than to a young woman from Denver? Should a retiree from Orlando be of less interest than a perspiring teenager whose British passport indicates a vacation in Afghanistan in 2000 followed by a visit to Chechnya?  

If we had infinite resource and time, we could scrutinize all passengers equally. But we don't. Either we prioritize screenings on the basis of reliable data and rational risk analysis – or we kid ourselves and, sooner or later, sacrifice lives on the altar of “political correctness.”

This is all so obvious only lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union could fail to grasp it. Indeed, the ACLU sues or threatens to sue anytime security officials attempt to utilize such commonsensical techniques. 

In the real world, no one has a better record of preventing air hijackings than the Israelis. Their success is not based on racial or religious profiling. Instead, they sift for clues in backgrounds and behaviors. Israeli security officials look passengers in the eye and ask questions — not questions of the perfunctory “Did anyone help you pack your suitcase” variety but questions that probe for telltale evasions and inconsistencies.  If they find them, they follow up. If not, next in line, please.

One Israeli security official was recently asked how his methods differed from those used in the U.S. “You people look for weapons,” he said. “We look for terrorists.”

And, he might have added, terrorists have profiles. They can be recognized and identified. The only question is whether we're willing to admit that and act on what we know.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.