Profiling is not always a dirty word. Travelling from or through Iran, Saudi Arabia or one of a dozen other countries on one's way to the United States is, as of yesterday, going to bring intense security screening, of a higher order than the screening of a traveller from Montreal or Brussels. This may be deemed country profiling, but whatever one calls it, it seems reasonable and fair, in light of a heightened threat of terrorism exemplified by the near-miss over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Some might say it is ethnic or religious profiling, but that would be inaccurate. U.S. or Canadian citizens who happen to be Muslim will not be subject to the extra layers of screening. (Whether they will be subject to extra screening because of their country of birth is still unclear. More on that in a moment.) Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic state, is not on the list. The fact that all the countries on the list but Cuba have Muslim majorities is a recognition that many of the Islamist terrorists who have declared themselves the implacable foes of the U.S. are trained or find support in those countries.
One might say the same about Britain, but unlike the other countries on the list it is a close ally and a democracy, and since Richard Reid's shoe-bombing attempt in 2001 it has proved itself able to stop catastrophic acts of airplane terror aimed at the U.S.
As a general principle, profiling that assumes a higher level of suspicion because of a person's origins is inimical to the notion of equality before the law. Canada and the West have a deep stake in the success of people from a wide variety of lands. To the extent the democracies make them feel alien, those democracies are hurting themselves.
A U.S. Arab civil rights group argued yesterday that when Arab-Americans travel to their birthplaces they will be singled out; but that is because of where they are going. In this sense they are subject to the same rules as anyone else.
Transport Canada and the Canadian Embassy in Washington weren't sure yesterday afternoon what the new U.S. Transportation Security Administration directive means. The New York Times reported that the screening would apply to "citizens" of 14 nations. That would be problematic. It could wind up applying to Canadian citizens born in those 14 nations, whether they are travelling through any of the 14 countries or not.
There is no easy or perfect answer. To intensely screen a white-haired grandmother as if she posed the same threat as a young man setting out from Yemen would be wasteful and nonsensical.
As airport security needs to take into account convenience and cost, it also needs to be grounded in basic rights. In an airport, the norms of a democracy do not go out the window. Based on experience and common sense, however, some airports and some countries may need a higher level of security than others.
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