Cain and Santorum Call for Airport Profiling

Herman Cain.<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/6183942539/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Gage Skidmore</a>/Flickr

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Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate in the Belly of the Beast (Washington, DC) began with a lengthy discussion on the Patriot Act and civil liberties. Newt Gingrich announced his whole-hearted support for the controversial law; Ron Paul, his total opposition. When it came to airport security, it was more of the same. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told host Wolf Blitzer he belived the TSA should profile Muslim passengers. Herman Cain suggested that racial profiling might be overly simplistic (this from the creator of 9-9-9), but called for “targeted identification” at airports. As he put it, “the terrorists have one objective that some people don’t get, to kill all of us… we should use every means possible to kill them first or identify them first.”

The problem is that it’s not entirely clear what a terrorist looks like, and judging by Santorum and Cain’s answers, it’s not clear that they’ve thought too much about it.

To be sure, TSA screeners should be on the lookout for the guy in the security line with a banana clip yelling “Death to America!” But generally speaking, terrorists don’t look like that. Say you wanted to screen for Muslims, as Santorum suggests—how would you know who is a Muslim and who isn’t? It’s not on your passport, at least not yet. TSA screeners could look at the names and take a guess—but terrorists span the ethnic spectrum and have lots of different-sounding names.  The name “Richard Reid” wouldn’t set off many alarm bells. Jose Pimentel, who was arrested in New York City on Sunday on terror charges, was Dominican, and had a Hispanic surname. Are Latinos suspect? Dominicans specifically? What about African-Americans? British nationals? The four Georgia men who plotted to spread ricin inside the Beltway were old white dudes upset about the plastic bag tax. Is Walter Matthau the new face of terror?

Israel has it easy when it comes to profiling. It has one major international airport and it profiles Arabs and doesn’t think twice about it. But that’s an impossible model to replicate.

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