Randomly Searching for Terrorists
In the wake of the London Tube bombings, New York City has adopted a new policy to screen subway riders. Teams of police officers set up tables near turnstiles. Signs nearby announce that backpacks and handbags are subject to inspection. If riders don’t want to be searched, they’re free to leave the station without their privacy being breached.
The policy calls for every 10th person entering the subway to be searched. The law forbids officers from singling out people based on race, religion, ethnicity, or coiffure. Which means that if the 9th person in the queue looks like Mohammed Atta and is wearing an “Osama Rules!” tee-shirt, officers are supposed to let him pass and search the next person, even if she looks like a 75-year-old yenta from Brighton Beach.
Not only is New York’s search policy irrational, it’s probably not a very good deterrent. Terrorist groups hoping to smuggle a bomb onboard the E Train can safely play the odds. They’re a 9-1 favorite to pass through without inspection. And if they are stopped, they’re allowed to leave the station without penalty.
The solution, according to several New York State assemblymen, is to dispense with political correctness and allow profiling. Most terrorists are Muslim extremists, they reason, so why shouldn’t the searches focus on the group that produces the problem?
Because it’s unconstitutional, for one. Besides, the way someone looks is a wildly unreliable measurement of his intentions. If Muslim terrorists know that police are searching only people who “look suspiciously like Muslims” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example — they can easily make themselves look like Southern Baptists, or Jews, or Hare Krishnas.
The fair and effective method is to search everyone, just as at the airport.
Inconvenient? Yes. An enormous drain on resources? Absolutely. But one of the key reasons America is America and not, say, Iran, is our (rapidly eroding) respect for civil liberties. If expediency were our guiding principle, we could simply drop a few nuclear bombs on Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, etc, and exterminate the troublemakers, who multiply like cockroaches no matter how many purses are rifled in Brooklyn. Instead, we take the high road, respecting both the sanctity of the Law and the preciousness of human life.
That’s not always easy or cost-effective. But it’s the right thing to do