The furor over intrusive airport scanning and pat-down searches may signal that Americans are finally fed up. They may be ready to consider the most effective security measure available: profiling.
The word touches off a Pavlovian protest about discrimination. That's unfortunate and needs to change. Effective profiling isn't about stereotyping but about focusing efforts and resources against the most likely threats. A twenty-something male traveling from Saudi Arabia ought to receive greater scrutiny than an elderly grandmother completing a round trip from Florida.
Full body scanners are no panacea. Italian security officials stopped using them in September because of poor results. Early this year, British scientists found that the scanners missed plastic, various chemicals and liquids. And that's where the next airline attacks may come from.
Recent terror attacks on the ground ominously illustrate techniques that could be brought to air travel. Suicide bombers in the Mideast used plastic or gel explosives inserted into their bodies, where neither scanners nor TSA officers' groping hands can find them.
In Israel, experience with scanners is also negative. Rafi Ron, former director of security at Tel Aviv airport, said of current U.S. airport security measures: "The concept behind what they are doing right now has proven to fail us repeatedly."
The answer is profiling --primarily by behavior and history, not ethnicity. And it works. Smart profiling is at the foundation of Israel's highly effective airport security. The result: the national airline, El Al, has not seen an attack or hijack attempt since 1968.
The Israelis have faced the reality that they have enemies, and their security forces go after those who fit the enemy profile. They're not worried about giving offense. Their key tactic is simple: They pull aside and question anyone whose history or behavior is suspicious. There are ways to hide explosives, but it's much harder for someone psyched up to destroy himself to hide his anxiety.
If anything, survival requires thinking beyond stereotypes. In 1972, terrorists attacked Tel Aviv airport and killed 24 people. The culprits: the Japanese Red Army, a leftist group. So by no means is profiling all about people from the Middle East.
Americans need to get over their neurotic habit of fretting that we might offend somebody. We have real enemies, after all. Lives are at stake. And so is our freedom. In the real world, sometimes you have to take tough measures.
What you don't have to do is subject the entire population of air travelers to the same level of scrutiny.
We should also get rid of distractions. The flurry of activity in the airport security line -- removing shoes, belts and wristwatches; surrendering water bottles and pocket knives -- diverts attention from our real enemies. Let grandma keep her shoes on; instead, keep an eye out for that fidgety, sweating guy from Yemen.
On that subject, Americans should demand that airports in countries that are known terror incubators allow our security personnel to screen U.S.-bound passengers. Taking the battle to terrorists on their home turf makes it harder for them. Should those nations protest, no problem, they can give up the routes.
Next, professionalize security personnel and improve databases. Let TSA drones run the walk-through metal detectors, but hire more experienced personnel to do the profiling -- ex-cops, retired FBI agents or former military intelligence officers. Give them sophisticated tools for spotting travel patterns.
In a world where profiling is the norm, some passengers will certainly be questioned who pose no threat, and some of those will be irritated and want to sue somebody. But lawsuits can be brushed aside. Simply make it a condition of air travel, by law, that every passenger agrees to be questioned or searched at any time. In the fine print on every ticket could be a waiver of the right to sue -- absent some showing of gross negligence or criminal intent on the part of security personnel.
Finally, if you are pulled aside by security, perhaps you should be entitled to a $20 gift card redeemable at any vendor at any U.S. airport. The small consideration could sooth ruffled feathers -- not to mention saving hundreds of billions of dollars on a gargantuan TSA system that inconveniences everybody.
It's true that no terrorist attack against America has been carried out in the air since 9/11, a fact TSA will tout as proof of its effectiveness. But the cost has been unconscionably immense. Better security can be achieved for much less money if more brains are applied.
A free people must accept some risk in life; the government is not the ultimate nanny. It's time to get away from the politically correct showmanship and support common-sense security measures, starting with profiling.