Price Is No Object
November 15, 2001
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 werent 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 dont 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 its
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
Mind you, I hate all these
security measures. I wish they werent 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
arent 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
wouldnt 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
Nobody knows all the answers, but some
nonanswers and phony solutions can be ruled out. And little as I like being
searched, Im 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 wasnt 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
This week, though, I was chosen for a search
at random. And this isnt 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
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.