Face of the nation, face of the world

As we recently boarded a plane in Jamaica after a family vacation, our three small grandsons were patted down – twice – by security agents. After we landed, late at night, hauling exhausted children behind us, our baggage was selected for extra screening.

What possible reason could they have, we asked the agents. The response: We were “traveling together,” and that apparently sinister connection triggered a need for even closer scrutiny.

This is nuts, a stupid waste of taxpayer dollars and a needless distraction for security personnel. America is no safer because those agents decided to put the kids’ backpacks through yet another X-ray machine.

We understand that random searches are supposed to keep the bad guys guessing. But the real reason seems to be politics, deniability. If our grandsons can be searched, goes the government’s argument, it is not engaged in racial profiling. It is not specifically targeting the group that obviously poses the greatest threat to American security – young Muslim males.

As a Catholic-Jewish couple, we are deeply sensitive to the devastating effects of ethnic or religious stereotyping. Our own ancestors were once excluded from vital areas of American life and derided as less than loyal citizens.

Today, Muslims suffer from that same stereotyping, and it is particularly humiliating when racial profiling happens in public. In his new book, “From Every End of This Earth,” Steve quotes a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab, a religious headscarf, and travels home frequently to California: “In all the trips I’ve made over the last four years, only once have I not been pulled aside. What really bothers me is that all these observers see this woman of color, wearing a hijab, and she’s being pulled aside. There goes that stigma, you know.”

Still, a standard of reasonableness has to apply here. Not all passengers pose equal threats. And in the days since a terrorist from Nigeria tried to ignite a bomb and bring down a plane heading for Detroit, the Obama administration has been wrestling with this problem.

If the random searches are silly, other measures make sense. As the president points out, the system failed because the Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, was never added to a terrorist watch list and subjected to extra screening. As a result, the standards for making the list have now been lowered and hundreds of new names have been added.

This is not racial profiling, even if most of the additions are Muslim or Arabic names. This is a legitimate defense of America’s security interests.

So is the decision to subject travelers from 14 countries, most of them in the Muslim world, to heightened security measures. Yes, many innocent passengers will be inconvenienced, and already civil libertarians and the affected countries are protesting, but the price of their disapproval is worth paying.

There’s a larger point here, however: The fight against terrorism has to start long before a potential bomber tries to board an airplane. If the Muslim community wants credibility when it argues against racial profiling, it has to help this country identify specific individuals who pose a threat to national security.

It was heartening to see what happened when five young Muslim men disappeared from their homes in the Washington, D.C., area, leaving behind an alarming video. Their parents sought guidance from a Muslim organization that immediately notified the FBI, and the suspects are now in custody in Pakistan. The father of the Nigerian bomber also warned authorities of his son’s lurch toward violence – an act of selfless generosity.

These are models that bear repeating. Leaders of the Muslim community should tell their followers: If we want to be treated as loyal Americans, we have to act as loyal Americans. Report the bad guys, even if they’re your children.

Another contribution these leaders can make is to urge young Muslims to consider careers in law enforcement. The more diverse our forces are – CIA, FBI, local police – the safer we are. The CIA, to its credit, is making a huge recruitment effort among young Muslims, and the current director, Leon Panetta, made a thoughtful speech recently in which he said: “The CIA has to reflect the face of the nation that we protect, and it has to reflect the face of the world that we are involved with.”

That’s true. Racial profiling is not the answer to terrorism; patting down 5-year-olds isn’t, either. But careful, sensible concentration on the real threats to our security – aided by a cooperative Muslim community – will help a lot.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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