Over the past three days, I’ve heard a plethora of talking heads say we should forego scanners and pat-downs in the United States in favor of the “Israeli Model” of airport security, including profiling.  They hold-up Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as the shining example of success, and I agree 100%.  Let’s do that, but we need to be honest about what that means and not pick and choose pieces of Israel’s security, which is what’s currently happening.  For the record, Israel’s security is MORE invasive than the U.S., not less.

Before talking specifically about security, let’s put the situation in perspective, because I don’t think anyone throwing around Ben Gurion airport understands the disparity of air traffic between Israel and the U.S.  The air traffic of the entire country of Israel is less than that of each of the top-ten airports within the United States.  Atlanta-Hartsfield alone handles four times the air traffic as all of Israel.  In 2009, Israel carried approximately ten million passengers compared to 700 million passengers carried in the United States.  That’s a whopping 6,900% difference in passenger load.  It’s like someone saw a man sculpting a bonsai tree and said, “That’s really pretty.  Let’s do that to every tree in Yellowstone National Park.” 

For argument’s sake, let’s say we DO have the ability to duplicate Israeli methods at all of our major airports.  Much has been made of how the Israeli security forces “profile” for terrorist threats, with the implication being that we should profile by race, targeting Arabs, because “Grandmothers didn’t bring down the towers”.

That’s not how Israel implements its profiling.  They aren’t targeting race, they’re targeting suspicious behavior, triggered by a screening process.  In 1972 they learned the limits of racial profiling the hard way.  In America, we see a Japanese tourist getting a pat-down and think, “Gosh, TSA is stupid.  That man is clearly not a terrorist.”  Israel used to think the same way, until three Japanese “tourists”, coming off an Air France flight into the Lod airport (Now Ben Gurion) pulled out automatic weapons and hand grenades and killed 26 people.  Until then, Israel had been screening by race, targeting Palestinians because of Palestinian hijackings of El Al flights.  The Asians were part of the Japanese Red Army, and had been hired by the Palestinian Liberation Organization to carry out the attack precisely to avoid racial profiling.

“Okay, I see that.  They were men.  But what sense does it make to grope that attractive, blond haired, blue-eyed girl?  She’s not a terrorist.”  The Israelis will tell you differently, because in 1971 four European females were duped into carrying bombs packaged as presents onto El Al aircraft by Palestinian “boyfriends”, once again to avoid the profiling.*

Anyone can be a terrorist, or an unwitting accomplice to terrorism.  The Taliban are recruiting young boys as we speak, so don’t get mad when I agree that your adopted son from Bangladesh needs to go through the scanner.  When we speak of profiling in the US it usually means we’re segregating out people for further screening based on some firm criteria, such as race or religion, in order to make life easier for the rest of the passengers.   In other words, only SOME people would have to go through the body scanners, which is a mistake.  The minute you allow all “grandmothers” to skip the screening, the terrorists will target grandmothers – a weakness they can exploit just as they did using the Japanese Red Army and the European “girlfriends”.  Ridiculous, you say?  Just last month a twenty-something Chinese man escaped his police state disguised as a ninety-year-old Caucasian man.  They are a thinking enemy, and once again, Israel understands this.  In the example above, the girlfriends failed the profile test because a) they didn’t match a suspect race and b) they didn’t show suspicious activity – because they didn’t know they were carrying the bombs.  As a result of these incidents, Israel beefed up their screening procedures to include ALL baggage, regardless of the profile testing – way back in 1972.*

Profiling is a great security tool, but it’s not a panacea.  Many are discussing Israel as if it does profiling in lieu of screening, but that’s simply not true.  They do profiling in ADDITION to screening.  At Ben Gurion, every single bag gets x-rayed twice and hand searched once.  Every person goes through a metal detector, which is tuned to trigger on just about anything.  Hand wands are all over the place, and additional searching is the norm, not the exception.  Complaints are legendary, and yes, even Israeli citizens bitch about security.  A former student of mine just returned from Israel – a white, American, Jewish man – where he was forced through three metal detectors, in addition to all of the baggage checks, after his profile interview.  In Israel, profiling is a layer in the process, not the total process.  Anyone who discusses Israel’s profiling as a substitute for body scanners in the U.S. isn’t accurately reflecting the Israeli method.

Far from using profiling to ease the pain of the security challenge for passengers, Israel uses it as a primary tool prior to technological screening such as x-rays and metal detectors, and they always err on the side of caution.  Make no mistake, Israel’s profiling is not sifting out bad guys.  It’s sifting out good guys.  If there is ANY indicator for further scrutiny, you’re going to get it, like this hapless white boy who had the misfortune of visiting Egypt prior to Israel.  Or this journalist who had visited the Palestinian areas.  And the Israelis don’t conduct our tepid pat-down.  It’s a strip-search down to the underwear – sometimes more – done without apology or remorse. 

I’m all about using Israeli security methods, because I enjoy landing in a plane as well as taking off, but let’s be honest about the true costs to privacy and the inconvenience involved.  It takes between two and three hours to get through Israeli security at Ben Gurion, starting in the parking lot.  For every single passenger.  It makes a great sound-bite, but the American people wouldn’t tolerate the procedures.  Luckily for Israelis, the Ben Gurion airport doesn’t care about hurt feelings – only preventing terrorism.  Unluckily for us, we’re paralyzed by it.  You think people are upset about body scanners?  What’ll we do when we’re told to take our clothes off? The current crying over the TSA  would be nothing compared to the screaming that would occur if all of our airports went the route of Ben Gurion.  People’s heads would explode over the indignity.  

*   I couldn’t find an internet link to the “boyfriend bombs”, and had to use an old fashioned book:  Israel versus Jibril: The Thirty Year War Against a Master Terrorist, Samuel M. Katz, pp 41-45.