As hands are being wrung in the aftermath of a near-tragedy on a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit on Dec. 25, a conversation from London's Heathrow airport in 1986 comes to mind.
It consisted of an El Al security agent quizzing one Ann-Marie Doreen Murphy, a 32-year-old recent arrival in London from Sallynoggin, Ireland. While working as a chambermaid at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, Murphy met Nizar al-Hindawi, a far-leftist Palestinian who impregnated her. After instructing her to "get rid of the thing," he then changed his tune and insisted on immediate marriage in "the Holy Land." He also insisted on their traveling separately.
Murphy, later described by the prosecutor as a "simple, unsophisticated Irish lass and a Catholic," accepted unquestioningly Hindawi's arrangements for her to fly to Israel on El Al on April 17.
She also accepted a wheeled suitcase with a false bottom containing nearly 2 kilograms of Semtex, a powerful plastic explosive, and agreed to be coached to answer questions posed by airport security.
Murphy successfully passed through the standard Heathrow security inspection with a brand-new Irish passport and reached the gate with her bag, where an El Al agent, new to the job, started questioning her. As reconstructed by Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy in a 1989 article in Washingtonian magazine, the interview went something like this:
"What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?" Recalling Hindawi's instructions, Murphy answered: For a vacation.
"Are you married, Miss Murphy?" "No."
"Traveling alone?" "Yes."
"Is this your first trip abroad?" "Yes."
"Do you have relatives in Israel?" She hesitated. "No."
"Are you going to meet someone in Israel?" "No."
"Has your vacation been planned for a long time?" "No."
"Where will you stay while you're in Israel?" "The Tel Aviv Hilton."
"How much money do you have with you?" "Fifty pounds." The Hilton at that time cost at least £70 a night, so he asked:
"Do you have a credit card?" "Oh, yes," she replied, showing him a British check-cashing identification card.
That, apparently, did it.
The agent sent her bag for additional inspection, at which point the bombing apparatus was discovered.
Had El Al followed the usual Western security procedures, 375 lives would surely have been lost somewhere over Austria. The bombing plot came to light, in other words, through a nontechnical intervention, relying on conversation, perception, common sense, and -- yes -- profiling. The agent focused on the passenger, not the weaponry. Israelis take passengers' identities into account; accordingly, Arabs endure especially tough inspections.
Overconfidence, political correctness, and legal liability render such an approach impossible anywhere else in the West. In the United States, for example, one month after 9/11, the Department of Transportation issued guidelines forbidding its personnel from generalizing "about the propensity of members of any racial, ethnic, religious or national origin group to engage in unlawful activity." (Wear a hijab, I semi-jokingly advise women wanting to avoid secondary screening at airport security.)
Worse yet, consider the panicky Mickey Mouse -- and embarrassing -- steps the U.S. Transportation Security Administration implemented hours after the Detroit-bombing attempt: no crew announcements "concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks," and disabling all passenger communications services. During a flight's final hour, passengers may not stand up, access carry-on baggage, or "have any blankets, pillows or personal belongings on the lap."
Some crews went even further, keeping cabin lights on throughout the night while turning off the in-flight entertainment, prohibiting all electronic devices and, during the final hour, requiring passengers to keep hands visible, and neither eat nor drink.
Widely criticized for these Clouseau-like measures, TSA eventually decided to add "enhanced screening" for travelers passing through or originating from 14 "countries of interest" -- as though one's choice of departure airport indicates a propensity for suicide bombing.
The TSA engages in "security theater" -- bumbling pretend-steps that treat all passengers equally, rather than risk offending anyone by focusing, say, on religion. The alternative approach is Israelification, defined by Toronto's Star newspaper as "a system that protects life and limb without annoying you to death."
So, which do we want -- theatrics or safety?
Daniel Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and Taube fellow at the Hoover Institution.