The location is any international airport in 2010. The scene is one of controlled chaos. People are pushed, prodded, searched, questioned and scanned. Row upon row of irritated passengers interact sullenly with overworked security personnel.
You straighten your shoulders, hoist your backpack and walk straight through. After all, this isn’t meant for you. Airport security is searching for Edward Said’s ‘other’ – the stranger, the foreigner, the potential terrorist. Your fast moving queue whisks you out of the claustrophobic security zone in minutes.
This is probably because your name is John Smith, or some other benign Anglo Saxon moniker. Were you Abdur Rehman bin Mohammad from the United Arab Emirates, or Iqbal Ali from Pakistan, your tale would diverge significantly.
Racial profiling has been openly acknowledged as the new approach in the fight to keep airlines safe. This opens the door to the creation of a brand new underclass of traveller — anyone that falls within the ambit of watchlisted countries, and, at a stretch, anyone who is Muslim with an exotic name. This underclass will experience a different type of air travel. Airports may turn into cloistered gulags for some travellers as they go through security procedures innumerable. Their white, non-Muslim counterparts are fast-tracked.
But what of it? For better or far worse, things have come to a head. Airplanes are tempting soft targets for anyone with a grievance, with fragile hulls and potentially hundreds of unarmed civilians. Subjecting all passengers to equal levels of stringent full body scans and searches is unfeasible. Busy airports, already chocked, will become impassable. Even organizations such as the UK-based Liberty have tacitly acknowledged that this particular battle is unsalvageable, with Director Shami Chakrabarti calling for restraint, but stopping short of protesting unequal treatment based on race.
Ethically, racial profiling may seem wrong. But closer examination shows it to be exceptionally right. From utilitarian theory to Kant’s categorical imperative, no ethical framework can justify subjecting everyone to suffering in the interests of farcical equality. Welfare must be guarded, even if selectively. That airport security must be increased is a fact. That it cannot be increased for all within the bounds of feasibility and comfort is also fact. Statistically, the chances of a potential terrorist being non-Anglo Saxon and Muslim is higher than the alternative. Basic risk assessment demands that resources be arraigned in proportion to probable threats. To do otherwise is merely capricious.
Unfortunately, I am caught firmly on the wrong side of this divide. In 2010, I foresee copious subdued indignation in the face of relentless scrutiny. But I try to take solace in that it is better to be inconvenienced than potentially dead.
A word, however, to the contrary. The advantage of uniform security is that it serves as a deterrent to all. Diverting resources to better scrutinize certain risks means letting others pass through unchecked.
Those interested in causing mayhem by killing airline passengers midair will realize this better than anyone. They prey on the vulnerable, weak and disenfranchised to carry out their plans, and such people exist in all societies. I suspect that the next series of airline attacks may be carried out by white Westerners – recent ideological converts, who have the best chances of slipping past security checks that are grounded in profiling. The debate on airport security will then be forced to resume. But for now, there is no alternative.