Why Was Molly Little Searched?
On Sunday, Bob Kerr wrote about Rhode Island native Molly Little’s experience with airport security. Here’s the one sentence summary: Kerr believes she was hassled at the airport because she is a “peace” activist (quotes are mine).
Let me begin with the slight note of hypocrisy that Kerr ends with. Kerr writes
It might never be officially confirmed, but when an 18-year-old from Rhode Island with a mind of her own can be detained at an airport without explanation it’s difficult to escape the feeling that somebody’s out there taking names.Why is the fact that Little is an 18-year old “her” relevant to this discussion? Is Kerr implying that Little should not have been searched because she is an 18-year old female? If demographic factors were used in deciding whom to apply extra scrutiny to, Kerr would be among the first to write about the evils of profiling. To maintain some intellectual honesty, and not just express generic liberal outrage, the above sentence should have been written about “a person with a mind of his or her own”.
Still, the question of why Molly Little was stopped is a valid one. The government doesn’t tell us the exact criteria that its airport screening systems use. There is a reasonable justification for this. If the exact criteria are known, the system is easier to beat. (If you want to sound tech-macho when describing this, say that “the system can be gamed”.) Not knowing the exact criteria, what follows is pure speculation on my part.
Start with this article by Michael Pastore, dated August 30, 2004.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will begin testing a new airport passenger-prescreening program to identify potential terrorists before the end of the year, and will also conduct a limited test to determine whether or not comparing passenger information to commercially available data can help to more accurately verify the identity of individuals.
The key here is the use of “commercially available data can help to more accurately verify the identity of individuals”. Note the stated goal is not to determine if a person is a good guy or a bad guy, but to determine if they are who they say they are. This could conceivably create a problem in the case of Molly Little. Molly Little also writes under the name of Margaree Little. Is Molly a commonly used diminutive of Margaree? If not, an automated system comparing records from different sources might reach the conclusion that the same person was using two names, i.e. a real name and an alias.
Any risk factors that were flagged were probably enhanced by the fact that Portland is considered a high-risk point of travel. You don’t think of Portland as high-risk? Mohammed Atta entered the US through Portland on September 11, 2001 AND was selected by the automated screeing program in place at the time.
Again, I am (for the purposes of this post) remaining neutral on whether this combination of checks, if they exist, are good things or bad things. I am pointing out that it is a little premature to jump to the conclusion that lists of peace protesters are being compiled.
Finally, there is one point in Little’s story I don’t understand at all. Little says the agent at the ticket counter said that members of the military are sometimes flagged by the screening system. This doesn’t make sense. Why would our government want to use it scarce screening resources on members of its own military? There is still a missing piece to this puzzle.