LONDON – As airport security tightens, checkpoint lines grow and tempers fray amid fears of devastating airborne attacks, more and more Britons are calling for the use of profiling to decide which travelers should be singled out as possible threats.
Advocates say it's common sense: elderly women and families with young children pose little risk. Opponents argue it's an ineffective policy which will alienate Muslims and — in the words of a senior police officer — create an offense of "traveling whilst Asian."
"Any measures introduced have got to be intelligence-led and not beard-led," said Shahid Malik, a lawmaker with the governing Labour Party.
Security at British airports was radically tightened last week after authorities said they had foiled a plot to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners using liquid explosives.
In the immediate aftermath, onboard liquids and hand luggage were banned and passengers endured long delays as security staff conducted hand searches of every traveler. That requirement has been eased, but the number remains far higher than the roughly one in four passengers searched before last week.
The Department for Transport now says that for the foreseeable future, most passengers will be searched.
Aviation security expert Chris Yates of Jane's Information Group said that with airports' current technology — focused on screening checked baggage for bombs and passengers for guns or knives — "you cannot check every single person for explosives. The airports would just grind to a halt."
The gridlock seen at Heathrow and other British airports this week has prompted more people to call for profiling to select passengers for searching.
Michael O'Leary, CEO of budget carrier Ryanair, said it was pointless "to be body-searching young children traveling with their parents on holiday to Spain. These are not terrorists."
Former Metropolitan Police chief Lord Stevens argued in the News of the World newspaper that "Islamic terrorism in the West has been universally carried out by young Muslims ... almost always traveling alone or in very small groups."
Racial and behavioral profiling has made Israel's El Al arguably the safest airline in the world, but the policy is controversial elsewhere. In the United States, civil libertarians have objected to profiling programs introduced at U.S. airports which look for suspicious patterns of behavior.
Experts say an element of profiling already exists at British airports. Security staff covertly scan passengers looking for those who appear nervous or behave oddly.
Advocates of such behavioral profiling say it should be vastly expanded, arguing it is a vital tool that avoids stereotyping passengers by ethnicity or religion.
"You are looking for abnormal behaviors, and they will be different on any flight," said Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International and an adviser on airline security.
He cites the example of Anne Marie Murphy, identified as an anomaly by Israeli profiling at Heathrow Airport in 1986 because she was a pregnant young Irishwoman, traveling alone to Tel Aviv. When searched, she was found to be carrying a bomb in her handbag, placed there by her Jordanian boyfriend.
"We should practice positive profiling — you look for those people who pose an extremely low threat, for example people who look like a family, act like a family and interact with the outside world like a family," Baum said.
"You cannot say, 'let's pull aside all Asian males.' That would be wrong, and it would not be good security sense."
But Muslim leaders fear profiling will inevitably mean more Muslims are searched, alienating a community that already feels it has borne the brunt of police stop-and-search tactics since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
"What you are suggesting is that we should have a new offense in this country called 'traveling whilst Asian,'" said Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei.
"That's unpalatable to everyone. It is communities that defeat terrorism, and what we don't want to do is actually alienate the very communities who are going to help us catch terrorists," Dizaei told British Broadcasting Corp. television.
Dizaei argued that terrorists "come in all shapes and sizes."
Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber apprehended aboard a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001, was a mixed-race convert to Islam. Three of those arrested in the airplane plot were also converts.
"Muslims are not an ethnic group and come from many different backgrounds including from the black community and increasingly from the white community," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.
"There is concern that such profiling would perhaps only contribute to further alienating a group whose close cooperation is essential in countering terror."