Terrorism and profiling

December 29, 2009 12:27:47 PM PST
I'm having a hard time remembering whatever it is we normally talk about during the typically slow week between Christmas and New Year's. (With the obvious exception of the Tsunami in 2004.)

This week the discussions are all about terrorism.

After nearly seven years of occupation in Iraq, and more than eight years with troops in Afghanistan (in retaliation for the biggest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil), you'd think that the threat of (another) radical Islamic attack here would be top of mind.

But - and maybe it's just a way to cope with an otherwise unthinkable scenario - most of us engage in a kind of reality suspension when it comes to these things.

Oh sure I remember stocking up on duct tape and water and cash and (fill in the blank) after the Sept. 11 attacks. And I still have in my office a gas mask and back pack stuffed with all sorts of survival items (that I'm sure are out-of-date by now). But we as a people tend to put glitter on dung and pretend it doesn't smell.

Have we done that with the war on terror? Maybe we have.

The debates that are now going on, again, in America, mirror the debates right after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. And they go to the core of what our democracy is about: How much freedom do you give up to try to stop terrorists? It's not an easy question to answer, and the answers in the heat of the incidental moment tend to be more rigid than the answers after some time has passed.

Should we be profiling people who get on airplanes? It's not racist to ask the question. In fact, it's intellectually honest. It's the answer that's the problem.

If radical Muslims are the ones who want to kill innocent people, then should Muslims be profiled? We don't tolerate it from law enforcement - remember the New Jersey State Trooper racial profiling scandals? - why should it be okay for airport security?

And yet are we wasting our time and money and other resources by randomly checking people who in no way fit any of the profiles of a terrorist-on-board?

One of our viewers - attorney Martin W. Schwartz from Nanuet - wrote in to say there shouldn't be a debate about this: "Without profiling, we might as well throw in the towel. You cannot fight guerilla warfare without good intelligence and the use of every tool in the arsenal. Certainly not with sky marshals who are not flying, and TSA screeners who are looking for the wrong things."

Other viewers who wrote expressed concern about the dangers and constitutionality of profiling. Both sides have good arguments. Both sides are right. You can cast a vote in our Question of the Day.

So what to do? It's hard to imagine that, his vacation in Hawaii notwithstanding, Pres. Obama isn't thinking about all this. One has to wonder if he's also thinking - or re-thinking - his choice of Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary - Janet Napolitano. She was by all accounts a good Governor of Arizona. But her issue is immigration - specifically at the Mexican border. And her stumbles since the Christmas Day terror attack on the Delta/Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, has many tongues a-wagging about her abilities.

Is someone with a law enforcement background better equipped to deal with the war on terror? I know, I know, the last President tried that with Bernie Kerik, and look what happened. One columnist today suggested that NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly would be a good pick for the job.

As I said, it's a long way from whatever it is we usually talk about in the week between Christmas and New Year's. But it's top-of-mind these days. As always, we're interested in your thoughts.

We'll have the latest on the investigation into Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tonight at 11. And it includes the convoluted warnings from his father, a successful banker in Nigeria, to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, that his son, the suspect, was increasingly becoming a radicalized Muslim in Yemen. Who dropped the ball in the communications between the embassy and the State Dept. and the government in Yemen?

Today, the foreign minister in Yemen said there may be as many as 300 Al Qaeda militants planning terror attacks from his country. And he asked for more help from the "international community" (meaning the U.S.) to train and equip counter-terrorist forces.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast, and Rob Powers (in for Scott Clark) with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.