May 31, 2002
Liberal Reality Check
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
s we gather around F.B.I. headquarters sharpening our machetes and watching the buzzards circle overhead, let's be frank: There's a whiff of hypocrisy in the air.
One reason aggressive agents were restrained as they tried to go after Zacarias Moussaoui is that liberals like myself — and the news media caldron in which I toil and trouble — have regularly excoriated law enforcement authorities for taking shortcuts and engaging in racial profiling. As long as we're pointing fingers, we should peer into the mirror.
The timidity of bureau headquarters is indefensible. But it reflected not just myopic careerism but also an environment (that we who care about civil liberties helped create) in which officials were afraid of being assailed as insensitive storm troopers.
So it's time for civil libertarians to examine themselves with the same rigor with which we are prone to examine others. The bottom line is that Mr. Moussaoui was thrown in jail — thank God — not because there was evidence he had committed a crime but because he was a young Arab man who behaved suspiciously and fit our stereotypes about terrorists. One of the most widespread canards since 9/11 is that he wanted to learn to fly a 747 but not how to take off or land. That is completely false; on the contrary, repeated F.B.I. statements show that he specifically asked for instruction on taking off and landing.
Mr. Moussaoui aroused suspicion for much milder behavior: he paid $8,000 in cash for the flight lessons; he expressed "unusual interest" in the notion that a plane's doors could not be opened during flight; he was a wretched pilot and yet wanted to learn how to fly a jumbo jet.
None of this would have meant anything if Mr. Moussaoui had white skin or fluent English. But fortunately, the flight instructor had a — possibly racist and certainly accurate — hunch that Mr. Moussaoui was up to something.
The Moussaoui case neatly exposes intellectual dishonesty on all sides. The Bush administration has engaged in widespread detentions of Muslims, twisting the law to keep them behind bars while denying that civil liberties have been abused. That's nonsense: the administration has wallowed in precisely the kind of hysterical wartime infringement of civil liberties that history always ends up judging harshly.
Yet civil libertarians are also dishonest in refusing to acknowledge the trade-off between public security and individual freedom. It would be admirable to insist on keeping our hands off potential terrorists until there is evidence that they have broken the law — but only if one frankly acknowledges that the price is a greater risk of terrorism.
The F.B.I. took new steps yesterday to expand its powers — allowing it to snoop on mosques, libraries and the Internet, for example — and they make sense. We must also relax a taboo, racial profiling, for one of the lessons of the Moussaoui case is that it sometimes works.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta bars airport security screenings based on religion or ethnicity. That's why aging nuns are plucked out of airport lines for inspections of their denture bags, why women with underwire bras are sometimes subjected to humiliating inspections after the metal detector goes off. But let's be realistic: Young Arab men are more likely to ram planes into nuclear power plants than are little old ladies, and as such they should be more vigorously searched — though with no less courtesy. El Al, the Israeli airline, has the world's most effective air security system, and it's all about racial profiling.
The backdrop is that the risks of terrorism are growing. As Joseph Nye of Harvard University observes, terrorist incidents in the 1970's (such as the attack at the Munich Olympics) had maximum death tolls of about a dozen; attacks in the 1980's and 1990's raised the scale (as in the Air India and Pan Am 103 bombings) to the hundreds; 9/11 lifted the toll into the thousands; and terrorists are now nosing around weapons of mass destruction that could kill hundreds of thousands.
As risks change, we who care about civil liberties need to realign balances between security and freedom. It is a wrenching, odious task, but we liberals need to learn from 9/11 just as much as the F.B.I. does.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company