Conservatives looking to engage in their favorite sport of national-security hysteria got their wish Christmas Day, when a young man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded an Amsterdam-Detroit flight with incendiary chemicals stashed in his underpants. The would-be bomber failed to destroy the plane and certainly did no fundamental damage to the United States of America. He did, however, get Fox News personalities Brit Hume and Bill Kristol to proclaim the attack a success. Under ordinary circumstances, you would expect the conservative press to avoid acting as al-Qaeda’s hype-men. But with partisan hay to be made, an attack in which only the attacker was injured becomes a victory for America’s enemies.
Coupled with the failure-as-success narrative, new calls have come for stepped-up racial or ethnic profiling. Tom McInerney, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, offered an extreme version, proposing that we "be very serious and harsh about the profiling" to the extent that "if you are an 18- to 28-year-old Muslim male you should be strip searched." Andy McCarthy at National Review Online and Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal expressed only slightly more restrained versions of profiling enthusiasm.
These proposals to entrench systematic, formal discrimination against the world’s Muslim population raise troubling ethical issues. More fundamentally, they completely fail to grapple with the logic of anti-American terrorist violence or the responsibilities of a global power.
Al-Qaeda's capacity to damage the United States is actually very limited. Even the devastating mass murder of September 11 left the country’s economic strength, infrastructure, and military might entirely intact. Al-Qaeda has since hit some soft targets abroad and attempted -- but failed -- to blow up airliners. Obviously, it would be a bad thing if someone like Abdulmutallab or "shoe bomber" Richard Reid killed a plane full of people, and the government rightly seeks to avoid this sort of attack. But a clear distinction should be drawn between a threat on that order and genuinely big-time dangers to national security like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and nuclear proliferation.
Instead, what al-Qaeda can do to America is scare its citizens and try to prompt us into counterproductive actions. Systematic anti-Muslim discrimination, for example, really might be an effective way of making air travel slightly more secure in the short term. But air travel is already extremely safe, and the United States of America needs to consider the broader implications of such a policy. Right now, a promising Bangladeshi scientist considering competing job offers in the United States and Europe could be honestly told that he would likely find America a more welcoming place. That’s an important source of national strength. Conversely, if we start routinely strip-searching the younger employees of the Indonesian embassy as they fly to their new posts in Washington, we can expect to adversely affect our relations with that country. Right now, over 10,000 Muslims serve in the American military. Their service is valuable on its own terms, and all the more so because they may have cultural or language skills that most Americans lack. Should they really be singled out for special maltreatment because a co-religionist set his pants on fire?
Beyond that, is it better to live in a country where a teenage American Muslim reads on a message board that the United States is a racist country hell-bent on persecuting Islam and reacts, "No, it isn’t"? Or would we really prefer he think, "That’s why I got singled out for strip searches when we went on vacation last winter"?
At the end of the day, our greatest defense against terrorism is the simple fact that few people actually seem to want to blow themselves up in order to kill Americans. The exact number of al-Qaeda operatives isn’t known, but the total is thought to be only in the thousands -- more Muslims are employed by America's own government. And most al-Qaeda operatives are apparently not volunteering for martyrdom.
One of the most under-noted aspects of the Abdulmutallab case is that his own father tried to drop the dime on him. That kind of cooperation is invaluable, as are our commercial, cultural, diplomatic, military, and law enforcement ties with majority-Muslim countries. As are the contributions of America’s Muslim citizens. To throw this all out the window in response to -- of all things -- a failed terrorist attack would be a huge mistake.
Indeed, the steps the Obama administration has already taken in this direction, most notably compiling a list of 14 "countries of interest" whose citizens and residents will be singled out for enhanced security, already go too far. This is profiling by another name, and throwing Cuba into this list -- on the theory that it’s a state sponsor of terrorism -- is childish and fools no one. Less than a month ago, Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and said, "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend." He was right. Too bad he’s lost sight of that.