We marvel at the difference a month makes.
Since the arrest of the “Underwear Bomber,” everywhere you turn these days you hear people saying we need to “profile” if we’re going to get serious about protecting ourselves from radical jihadists.
The Wall Street Journal column below is just one example.
CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is on the defensive, making absurd arguments that profiling doesn’t work because as soon as we start profiling al Qaeda will recruit blond-haired, blue-eyed Swedes as suicide bombers.
The public opinion tide is indeed turning.
2010 is shaping up to be a year where events convince people that we need to make qualitative changes in how we deal with the threat of Islamist terrorism.
The fact that the Obama administration ordered extra security measures for air travelers from specified countries, which is in fact profiling, is instructive. You can be sure this is not an action President Obama wanted to take—but events and public opinion are forcing his hand.
Our Incompetent Civilization
Sometimes we have to choose between evils.
• By BRET STEPHENS
When does a civilization become incompetent? I’ve been mulling the question in a number of contexts over the last year, including our inability to put a stop to Somali piracy, detain a terrorist who can neither be charged nor released, think rationally about climate change, or rebuild Ground Zero in an acceptable time frame.
But the question came to me again in Brussels on Sunday as I watched my children—ages six, four, and four months—get patted down before boarding our U.S.-bound flight. The larger-than-allowed bottle of cough syrup in my carry-on, however, somehow escaped our screener’s humorless attentions.
Yes, the screener in this case was Belgian, not American. Yes, terrorists come in any number of skin colors, and they aren’t above strapping explosives to their own children. And yes, the Obama administration took a half-step toward sanity by ordering additional screening of passengers from 14 countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, home of Flight 253 would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But here’s a predictive certainty: Not one non-Muslim from any of these countries (or others such as Egypt or Jordan, which were oddly excluded from the list) will ever become a suicide bomber. The localized case of Sri Lanka’s Tamils aside, suicide bombing is a purely Islamic phenomenon. Note that during the whole of the intifada there was not a single case of a Palestinian Christian blowing himself up, making a nonsense of the view that Israel’s checkpoints and curfews and security fences were the main cause of the terror.
So as Homeland Security, TSA and the rest of the government’s counterterrorism apparatus struggle to upgrade travel security in a way that doesn’t involve freeze-drying passengers in their seats, it’s worth noting that we have finally reached the outer bounds of a politically correct approach to airport security. To wit, the U.S. government is now going to profile Muslim passengers, albeit partially, indirectly and via the euphemism of nationality instead of religion. Insofar as actual security is concerned, it would be both more honest and effective if it dropped the remaining pretense.
The obvious rub is that profiling goes against the American grain. We shudder at the memory of previous instances of it, particularly the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. Rightly so.
But a civilization becomes incompetent not only when it fails to learn the lessons of its past, but also when it becomes crippled by them. Modern Germany, to pick an example, has learned from its Nazi past to eschew chauvinism and militarism. So far, so good. But today’s Multikulti Germany, with its negative birth rate, bloated welfare state and pacifist and ecological obsessions is a dismal rejoinder to its own history. It is conceivable that within a century Germans may actually loathe themselves out of existence.
In the U.S., our civilizational incompetence takes various forms. For instance: No country in the world collects more extensive statistical data about its own population than the U.S. And no country is as conflicted about the uses to which that data may or may not be put than the U.S. So what exactly is the point of all this measuring, collating and parsing?
Our deeper incompetence stems from an inability to recognize the proper limits to our own virtues; to forget, as Aristotle cautioned, that even good things “bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage.”
Thus we reject profiling on the commendable grounds that human beings ought not to be treated as statistical probabilities. But at some point, the failure to profile puts innocent lives recklessly at risk. We also abhor waterboarding for the eminently decent reason that it borders on torture. But there are worse things than waterboarding—like allowing another 9/11 to unfold because we recoil at the means necessary to prevent it. Similarly, there are worse things than Guantanamo—like releasing terrorists to Yemen so they can murder and maim again (and so we can hope to take them out for good in a “clean” Predator missile strike).
Put simply, we do not acquit ourselves morally by trying to abstain from a choice of evils. We just allow the nearest evil to make the choice for us.
And so it goes. We can be proud of how deeply we mourn the losses of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a nation that mourns too deeply ultimately becomes incapable of conducting a war of any description, whether for honor, interest or survival. We rightly care about the environment. But our neurotic obsession with carbon betrays an inability to distinguish between pollution and the stuff of life itself. We are a country of standards and laws. Yet we are moving perilously in the direction of abolishing notions of discretion and judgment.
One of life’s paradoxes is that we are as often undone by our virtues as by our vices. And so it is with civilizations, ours not least.