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Price Is No Object

November 15, 2001

It happened again. Just after describing the annoyance of airport security in my last column, I took another flight from Washington to Chicago and back, and once more I set off alarms — at both ends. In addition, I was randomly selected, before my return trip, for a special screening search, the kind where you have to empty all your carryon luggage.

When the young woman on duty found no weapons in my bags, she ungrudgingly conceded that I was to all appearances a good American and permitted me to board the plane. She was clearly embarrassed about the orders she was required to follow. She knew very well that the vast majority of the people she had to inspect weren’t the least bit suspicious. But she is working, now, not only for the airline, but for the government, which imposes its dictates without respect to common sense.

Everybody must be treated as a suspected criminal, regardless of race, creed, or color, even if race, creed, and color have practical relevance to the problem. All the known terrorists who participated in the 9/11 plot were Muslims from the Middle East. None were, or could have passed for, white Presbyterians from Omaha. But the official ethnic etiquette insists that such distinctions are invidious “profiling.” Realism is taboo.

Of course we don’t want to insult millions of Muslims by making them all suspects. But when all the eyewitnesses to a murder agree that the killer is a tall, red-headed man, then all tall, red-headed men are “profiled.” This may be unfair to most of them, but it’s a practical necessity, unless you want to waste an enormous amount of time and effort treating every little old lady as a suspected hijacker for the sake of abstract fairness.

[Breaker quote: Passing on the 
costs of 'security'Mind you, I hate all these security measures. I wish they weren’t being inflicted on anyone. But how are things improved by inflicting them on everyone?

We know that the terrorists, whatever their connection to Osama bin Laden, are drawn from a particular class of people who have, in their own minds, specific reasons for hating this country. They aren’t a random group with nothing in common. Yet the same government that has done so much to inflame them — no matter whether its policies are justified or not — refuses to recognize their specificity. Or, more to the point, to allow the airlines to do so. It prefers to impose huge burdens on all of us by insisting on wildly excessive security precautions.

Even strip searches of every passenger wouldn’t guarantee absolute safety from hijackings. Conceivably a naked grandmother could figure out a way to take over a plane in flight. Can we afford to take that chance? Well, yes. At some point even the government has to be reasonable.

Nobody knows all the answers, but some nonanswers and phony solutions can be ruled out. And little as I like being searched, I’m not even personally offended by it; maybe a man of my description could hijack a plane, and playing it safe inevitably requires some superfluous effort of prevention.

But I wasn’t searched because of anything specific to me, any resemblance, however accidental, to a terrorist; I could accept that. Thirty years ago a serial killer in my hometown made all young women afraid of all young men, including me; nobody blamed the women for fearing us.

This week, though, I was chosen for a search at random. And this isn’t a random universe. The 9/11 hijackers were men who might have raised eyebrows even in the absence of metal detectors.

The current measures go far beyond the rational, and everyone knows this, especially the people who have to enforce the new rules. The government is imposing costs not only on innocent people who happen to resemble terrorists, but on countless people nobody in his right mind could suspect.

If those who made the rules had to bear the costs of enforcing them, they would soon recover a sense of proportion. But when they can make the rest of us pay for their decisions, they will serve their own interests at the expense of ours.

For the government, price is no object. This remains true even in a time of crisis. Especially in a time of crisis.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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