The Obama administration has announced that citizens of 14 selected countries—as well as travelers whose itineraries have taken them through any of these countries—will be subjected to enhanced scrutiny before they board planes to the United States, including full-body pat-downs. The countries comprise four "state sponsors of terrorism" (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria) and 10 "countries of interest," a euphemism for terrorist breeding grounds. These last are Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen.
If this new security policy is an indication—however embryonic—that the president is beginning to get serious about tackling Islamist terrorism, then millions of Americans will permit themselves a glimmer of gratitude. Let's call it the " Underwear Dividend," after Farouk Omar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who was apprehended in mid-air on Christmas Day with a bomb secreted in his nether parts.
It is devilishly difficult to design a protective system that separates murderous jihadis from a nonviolent majority without chafing against some civil liberties. But the question many now ask is whether we are worrying too much about those liberties and not enough about saving lives.
On a macro level, one has to wonder about the commitment of a president who invariably prefers to use the word "radical" to describe a "terrorist," and whose secretary for Homeland Security cannot easily bring herself to utter the word "terrorism," preferring instead a phrase—" man-caused disasters"—that should make most American jaws drop. (Of course, it may be that the one way to ensure a grassroots Democrats clamor for action against terrorism is to call it "anthropogenic"…)
The macro story is, alas, one of broader ideology, which tends to remain fixed in the course of an administration. We cannot expect Obama to fight terrorism with the zeal of a Bush, especially when it's clear that he regards his predecessor as a destructive Ahab obsessed with an Islamist "Moby-Dick." Obama is Starbuck, not merely more pragmatic than Ahab but immeasurably wiser: His mission is to keep the Pequod—America—out of harm's way.
• Big Fat Story: The Invasion of Body Scanners No, President Obama cannot change his natural course, so the best we hope for is a minimization of political correctness in the daily, practical matter of keeping us secure from Islamist terrorists. So whereas any formal use of "profiling" as a tool may be politically unthinkable, we have made a useful start with this latest list of tainted countries.
Of course, the great majority of Muslims—whether here or abroad—are peaceable, and it is devilishly difficult to design a protective system that separates murderous jihadis from a nonviolent majority without chafing against some civil liberties. But the question many now ask is whether we are worrying too much about those liberties and not enough about saving lives.
Obama cannot say, formally, that our most pressing problem is with Islamist terrorism, even though incidents of terrorism by non-Muslims are trivial these days. And as we, as a society, are still bound fast to our proprieties, we cannot formally say that we are afraid of radicalized Muslims getting on planes to kill us. We cannot, formally, segregate Muslim passengers from the rest in airport security. We cannot, formally, say that the intellectual author of this terrorism is Saudi Arabia, and the main logistical base is Pakistan. Why, these last two are our dear friends. However, we have put those countries on a tainted list; and the taint is a soft form of profiling, since we really do not trust people who fly to America from those two countries. If we can’t profile people, we can, it seems, profile entire nations.
A few practical proposals, going forward: Why not station police on board all flights? El Al, which adheres to such a practice, has not had an on-air incident in three decades. (Edward Jay Epstein made precisely such a suggestion, two weeks after September 11, 2001, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.)
Next, make it more cumbersome for people in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to get a U.S. visa, and institute an immediate review of all visas issued to males under 40 from the 14 countries. Revoke all those that don't pass a "smell test." As Abdulmutallab demonstrated, a U.S. visa is a precious al Qaeda asset. In the same vein, introduce a form to be filled by all who pass through immigration at U.S. (air)ports, one that asks all travelers—irrespective of where they arrive from—if they have visited any of the countries on the list in the last two years. If they have, they must state the purpose of their visit. (How else do we scrutinize, say, the Dutch national of Somali origin who may have been in Somalia with the Islamist "Shabaab" six months ago, but who is, in this instance, flying directly to New York from The Hague? People will lie, but subsequent detection will help in deportation, or prosecution.)
We have to create—increasingly—two classes of traveler, those that get normal checks and those that are subject to intensive checks. Inevitably, this will open up fissures, but these are fissures we must learn to live with. As Melik Kaylan wrote recently, " the world will likely undergo a period of de-integration or rather a new kind of integration in which mutually sympathetic cultures grow actively closer while others get slowly excluded." Eventually, if the pressure is applied long enough, the innocent majority in the watch-list countries will decide that it is in their own interest to root out the radical Islamists. In any event, the list shrinks the umbra of anonymity in which jihadists conceal themselves. It is likely that certain countries will not get off the list for decades, which may mean that they don't care enough, or are just too ramshackle and corrupt, to get their house in order. It may also mean that they are perennial enemies. Pertinent, here, is the one silver lining in the Abdulmutallab case: that the father reported his own son to the authorities. We have to encourage such people to go after their own fanatics.
Finally, we have to accept that this isn't a problem that can be solved through ever-increasing security measures. It is, as Robert Kagan has written in the latest issue of World Affairs, a problem that requires a robust combination of political and military responses. Perhaps some Democrats may even learn that Islamist jihad has a pedigree that predates George W. Bush.
Another part of our response should be to counter the spread of radical Islam in the West, particularly in prisons, where proselytizers have access to people who are vulnerable to being "saved." These are the sleepers who threaten us at home. We can tighten visas and other forms of restrictions to hinder the very active and well-funded missionary work done in the West by Islamist groups drawing upon personnel, money, and ideas from tainted countries. It won't be fully effective, but it would make it easier for the moderate, civilized majority to fight the conflict within the Muslim community against the better-subsidized fanatics.
To conclude, there are three under-acknowledged factors involved here, all of them cultural in character (and our culture inclines us to overlook them). First, when the White House and Congress are in Democratic hands, a slight and silent sense goes out over all the bureaucracy that national security is not all that important or interesting. Second: Bureaucracies reward inertia and do not punish ignorance. They are also—no news here—deeply compartmentalized. Three: Every educated American under the age of about 40 has been indoctrinated into the view that the worst thing imaginable is to be judgmental, because to make a judgment is, per se, to be intolerant.
Put all these together and you have a society almost perfectly unable to discern deadly threats to its existence—a society in which, it would appear, profiling people is more odious than mass murder.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)