Saturday 5 December 2009

In Defence of Racial Profiling

A recent industrial dispute in South Africa in which a former El Al security agent sued his former employer for unfair dismissal has, once again, raised the issue of the validity and morality of racial profiling.

In the particular case, former security agent Jonathan Garb accused El Al of the non payment of a bonus. The disagreement between the two escalated to the point where Garb was dismissed from his position after working for El Al for some 17 years. He sued for unfair dismissal, but also went on a parallel press campaign to publicly discredit El Al in South Africa. He saw fit to approach an investigative television program to level claims against El Al which were aired on South African television. In these claims, he accused El Al of hiding Israeli spies amongst its security personnel which lead to the South African government expelling an Israeli diplomat. Perhaps most serious of his claims was one which accuses El Al of using racial profiling as part of its security operation. Garb claims that, in using this practice, El Al is acting above the law in South Africa. Clearly, racial profiling is a sensitive point in South Africa, which is still living under the cloud of the former apartheid regime. This has caused some tension between the South African authorities and the Israeli government, and with El Al in particular.

Racial profiling is not only a sensitive issue in South Africa. It has come under the spotlight on many previous occasions in various places around the world. Garb was clearly aware of the fact that he would be opening a can of worms in raising this accusation against his former employer. He was clearly intent on doing as much damage as possible to El Al.

Racial profiling is defined as the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act, or to behave in a "predictable" manner. Political correctness in our current society dictates that racial profiling is discriminatory and should not be used. For some people, this is where the argument begins and ends, and they are the ones who fight against racial profiling without considering other issues. But, like most things, the matter is not as simple as it appears on surface.

When considering the important subject of airline security, there are many competing considerations at play. First and foremost is the issue of ensuring that security procedures will guarantee the safety of the airline and its passengers - on each and every flight. Secondly, the airline will work to achieve this at the cheapest possible price. Security already comprises a significant part of the budget for any airline and, like all costs, there is a great deal of pressure to reduce costs to allow the airline to operate profitably and to be able to compete effectively against other airlines.

El Al has long been acknowledged as having very effective security procedures in place to guarantee the safety of its passengers. It would be widely, if not universally agreed that El Al is probably the airline that is most at risk to international terrorism in today's world. So, whilst El Al cannot afford to take any chances with its security, it is still forced to compete on equal terms with other airlines for its business. The fact that it is forced to implement more extensive security arrangements to secure its passengers will not justify charging its passengers more on ticket prices. This would almost certainly put it out of business. Instead, El Al is forced to work "smarter" to guarantee security whilst limiting its prices to be able to compete against others for its business.

Working smarter means many things. Amongst others, it means not forcing all passengers through the full extent of its security checks. If the airline is going to be able to reduce the security checks that it applies, it needs to decide which passengers will go through full security and which passengers it can afford to apply reduced security checks to. Because security cannot be applied on a random basis, the airline is forced to assess the risk that each passenger presents. During the course of this risk assessment, the airline has decided that Muslim passengers present a higher risk to the safety of the airline than other passengers. This conclusion was not reached in a haphazard or discriminatory fashion. It was reached on the basis of actual events that have taken place in recent years, and on the basis of actual threats that have been made against the airline, against Jews and against Israel and Israelis who comprise the bulk of its passengers. The reality is that the more terror threats and attacks around the world have been perpetrated by Muslims and Arabs than by any other nation or group. This fact cannot be ignored, and this cannot be blamed on El Al security.

The policy of racial profiling was challenged in a filing in the Israeli Supreme Court earlier this year. The challenge made by a civil rights group alleged that Arabs are singled out for tougher treatment by El Al security. The respondent did not deny this fact. It was mentioned that in the US the law prohibits racial profiling, and requires that passengers be singled out for security checks on a random basis rather than according to race

I feel that the policy of racial profiling adopted by El Al has more than justified itself. The airline has an exemplary security record which, for passengers, is the most important point. In addition, it is still in a position to compete against other airlines who do not have the same level of security threat to deal with. It is also noticeable that El Al was not forced to make wholesale changes to its security checks in light of the additional threats presented in the post-September 11 world. El Al is the only airline that routinely continues to use stainless steel cutlery on all its flights, and Israel is the only airport that continues to allow passengers to board flights with liquids in their hand luggage. In fact, it is my impression that El Al checks are much easier to negotiate these days than those of other airlines. I have never yet been asked to remove my belt or shoes prior to boarding an El Al flight. I cannot say the same for other airlines that I have recently flown with.

It remains clear to me is that racial profiling is an important and valid part of El Al's security process and can easily be justified. The profiling is based upon a real and identifiable threat posed by a certain group of people, and is not based on random discrimination. In order for this policy to be rescinded, the onus is not on the airline. Rather, the onus is on Arabs and Muslims to prove in the future that they do not present the same threat to airlines as they do now. Instead of being critical of El Al, perhaps the criticism should be reserved for those who are the cause of the lack of airline security, and who perpetrate terrorist acts on airlines and elsewhere.

Jonathan Garb should be ashamed of his accusations and his behaviour. Whilst he may have a valid claim for unfair dismissal against El Al, his decision to drag the issue of racial profiling into his case is a low blow. After all, Garb should understand more than most how important security is for El Al, and how it is best undertaken.

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