Sunday, December 03, 2006

More Idiocy Disguised as Security

Muslims leading a prayer-protest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in November

If there is one thing that at which American air safety officials seem to excel, it is inconveniencing and harassing innocent airline passengers without actually making the U.S. safer from terrorist attacks. The recent removal of six imams from a US Airways flight after they had been observed praying at the Minneapolis-St. Paul terminal, is a case in point. American "security" officials, as well as more and more "regular" Americans seem to believe that they are being conscientious when they pick on people who deviate from the norms of white bread America. Even Canada, the self-declared haven of multiculturalism, is no longer immune from this idiocy. In September, a Hasidic Jew praying on an Air Canada Jazz flight was arrested for "making other passengers nervous":
"He was clearly a Hasidic Jew," said Yves Faguy, a passenger seated nearby. "He had some sort of cover over his head. He was reading from a book.

"He wasn't exactly praying out loud but he was lurching back and forth," Faguy added.

The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous.

It seems to me that North Americans simply go on auto-mode when confronted with certain "suspicious" indicators. No doubt, the airlines have an extensive unpublished list of infractions (such as praying or wearing unusual clothing) that set off specific procedures. Once an infraction is reported, it becomes impossible to reverse course - no matter how obvious it becomes to everyone involved that the person singled out is completely innocent. Meanwhile all those who seem "scary" by virtue of their difference from the rest of society - be they imams or haredi Jews - are publicly humiliated.

All this might be justifiable if security officials actually apprehended terrorists. But their current modus operandi is probably making it more difficult to catch those determined to blow up airliners. The root of the problem is ignorance - the same kind of ignorance exhibited by top American security officials and lawmakers who were unable to tell a reporter whether Iran and Hizbullah were Sunni or Shi'a (see John's post). To make up for the cluelessness of the people on the ground as well as the higher-ups, the Americans have tried to implement complex data collection systems, which present enormous costs (to the civil liberties of American citizens as well as to their pockets) with very little benefits. Again, the emphasis is on specific, isolated threat indicators, rather than on holistic assessments of individuals carried out by people who actually know things.

For example, it seems that since 2002, Homeland Security has been assigning threat scores to all travelers leaving and entering the U.S., with something called the Automated Targeting System. As is to be expected from this administration, these data collected on American citizens and foreigners are shared with private companies, state and federal government agencies, and foreign countries, without monitored travelers having any access to their "report cards." The Associated Press reports that

Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

I now know why I was told by my travel agent last March that ordering a kosher meal would put me on an anti-terrorism watch list.

As you might expect, collecting data on the meal selections of history graduate students is unlikely to prove effective in catching terrorists. This might explain the government's laconic response to inquiries about ATS's efficacy. According to the same article, "Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists."


Niraj said...

Amos, you might enjoy
Bruce Schneier's op-ed pieces on surveillance and data mining for terrorists at

Amos said...

Thanks for the tip, Niraj. And more importantly, thanks for reading! I like this piece in particular and agree fully with the conclusion that

By allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on us all, we're not trading privacy for security. We're giving up privacy without getting any security in return.

I think similar things can be said about many of the administration's homeland security policies.

Noah S. said...

Amos - While I agree that many "white bread" Americans get nervous around both Hasidim and conservative Muslims (and around other people who look suspicious/criminal/swarthy and/or wear head coverings), it probably makes sense to clarify in this post--even if it's obvious--that devout Muslims elicit a suspicion the nature of which is several hundred orders of magnitude more extreme than the reactions devout Jews provoke at airports. I appreciate the attempt to situate religious Jews and Muslims in the same "boat" of surveillance, but let's be honest, you might be put on a terrorist-watch list for wearing a kipah or returning the veal parmesan on U.S. Airways (if they offer you food at all these days, those tightwads), but you're not going to be strip-searched for it. According to the article you linked, it seems that this Hasidic guy was taken to the gate to procure a translator - not to be arrested. Not that that's okay, but it's very different from being ordered off the plane by the pilot and being questioned for five hours by federal security officials (as the six imams were).

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right, Noah, they face different kinds of suspicions - mainly because hasidim haven't blown up any buildings recently.