We can't root out terrorism wearing blinders

Nearly a decade after Sept. 11, we still have our heads in the sand.

Just listen to the criticism of Thursday's hearing on Islamic radicalization here at home overseen by Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. On Tuesday, the New York Times said: "Notice that the hearing is solely about Muslims. It might be perfectly legitimate for the Homeland Security Committee to investigate violent radicalism in America among a wide variety of groups, but that doesn't seem to be Mr. King's real interest."


Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, told MSNBC: "Well, it's a disturbing use of a congressional hearing . . . to essentially go after a religious-minority group; I think it is a scary proposition."

In response, Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), a member of King's committee, told me Thursday, "A lot of the furor around these hearings has been about the inability to look the tiger in the eye and say [that] one of the things we need to do is understand the nature of the threat."

The critics' ostrich mentality reminds me of a lesson we failed to learn after 9/11: We cannot defeat those who seek to kill us while we wear blinders. Since the attacks, it has been taboo to acknowledge the commonalities of the religious fanatics who threaten the United States.

For example, after 9/11, if domestic pilots had concerns about passengers who were Middle Eastern and took action to protect their passengers, their employers were fined by our government for alleged discrimination.

In other words, despite the fact that every one of the 19 hijackers was Middle Eastern, our government policy was to mandate that pilots, who bore responsibility for the safety of passengers and crew, ignore that fact.

Worse, United and American Airlines - which combined lost 33 crew members and hundreds of passengers on 9/11 - were each fined $1.5 million for discrimination complaints lodged against them in the months after the attacks.

Let me give one example from those cases.

On Nov. 3, 2001, a naturalized American of Jordanian birth was seeking to fly on American from Boston to Los Angeles. The man said he was a defense contractor and claimed to have a high-level security clearance.

A fellow passenger alleged that this Arab American was behaving suspiciously before boarding. The behavior was not detailed in the file, though an air marshal also informed the pilot that the passenger in question had been acting suspiciously and that his name resembled one on the federal watch list.

In deciding what to do, the pilot considered what had happened two months before; how the attacks had happened; where they had happened; how his flight plan was similar to hijacked flights on 9/11; the two reports of suspicious behavior; the similarity to a name on the watch list; and the ethnicity of the passenger involved.

The pilot decided to delay the man's departure and have him questioned. When his story checked out, he was upgraded to first class on the next available flight later that day.

But to the Department of Transportation, this was discriminatory because the passenger's ethnicity was among the factors considered.

Essentially, our government was saying that all the factors the pilot considered were appropriate except ethnicity. That defies common sense. As does the criticism of King.

Last week, King explained to me the purpose of his hearings.

"If the threat is coming from the Muslim community, it doesn't do any purpose for me to be wasting time investigating the environmental extremists or the neo-Nazis. . . . They are not part of an international movement against the U.S. . . . [T]he fact is it's al-Qaeda that murdered 3,000 people on Sept. 11. It's al-Qaeda that's trying to do it again. And they're doing that now by attempting to recruit from within the Muslim American community.

"When we looked for the Mafia, we went into the Italian American community. When they were investigating the Westies, they went to the Irish American community. . . . When you talk about the Russian mob, they go into Brighton Beach and Coney Island. If you're investigating al-Qaeda terrorist recruiting, you're going to go into the Muslim community. They're not recruiting Catholics or Protestants or Jews or Hindus .. . ."

To ignore the characteristics of those who threaten us is to repeat the Bush administration's mistakes of fining airlines for taking commonsense precautions.

Law enforcement needs to be driven by evidence, not deterred by political correctness or pressure from either extreme. Politics should never be used to initiate an investigation, but neither should it be relied upon to thwart an otherwise valid inquiry.

Contact Michael Smerconish

via www.smerconish.com.

Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.