Leading article: Heading off in the wrong direction

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The long delays and personal searches that have been in effect in British airports since a terror plot aimed at airliners was revealed last week have been met with impressive stoicism by most travellers. But not all have displayed such patience. Depressingly, although perhaps inevitably, the cry of "why search everyone?" is now being heard. Why, it is demanded, do airport security services not concentrate their resources on searching those who are most likely to be terrorists?

This view is gaining ground, in spite of the slight easing of airport security in recent days. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, advocates a system of "passenger profiling", rather than the blanket checking system that is in place at present. And the Department of Transport is reported to be considering intensive checks on people who fit the "profile" of suicide bombers, although it refuses to answer questions publicly on this subject, arguing that to discuss security techniques has the potential to help terrorists.

The Government would be ill-advised to sanction such a system. For it is obvious that it would mean the intensive targeting of those travellers of Asian, or Islamic, appearance. Lord Stevens argues that "the truth is that Islamic terrorism in the West has been carried out by young Muslim men, almost always travelling alone." This is true, but it does not follow that focusing searches on those of Asian appearance is an effective way to foil terrorist plots.

We should bear in mind that there have been a number of non-Asian converts among those radicalised by Islamist propaganda. One of the July Tube bombers was of Jamaican origin. And when it becomes obvious to terrorists that airport security is focused on those of an Asian appearance they will doubtless discover ways of getting round it.

This sort of crude profiling could also alienate the very communities whose co-operation will be needed to foil terrorist attempts. Anyone who doubts the damage to community relations such practices can inflict should look at the troubled history of the "sus" laws in Britain and their heavy-handed utilisation by the police. If an entire ethnic community is treated as potential criminals, they are unlikely to co-operate with the authorities.

But passenger profiling is also morally wrong, regardless of the threat we face from terrorism. There is something deeply unpleasant about encouraging officialdom to target people because of their ethnicity or appearance. That is not a road we should go down - even if it means our journey through airport security will be that bit quicker.