When ‘human intelligence’ is just racism

Should airports really opt for more personal screening of passengers?

Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport has a strict screening procedure for passengers, writes Silver [Reuters]

In early July, the United States issued a travel warning to its citizens and asked foreign airports with direct flights to the US to tighten their security measures. In response, Brooke Rogers penned a column for Al Jazeera English in which she forewarns that terrorists’ ability to expertly conceal their explosives might outpace our technological ability to detect them. She harkens back to a three-year-old scare that terrorists might begin surgically hiding improvised explosive devices or IEDs inside their bodies, or stow non-metallic explosives inside every-day electronic gadgetry.

For Rogers, the solution to this ominous threat is pretty obvious: reintroduce the human element into airport security. She writes, “Well-trained airport personnel are more likely to pick up on signs and signals of distress, or ill-intent during periods of face-to-face contact.”

She does not explain how these “human x-ray” skills could be acquired, but we can get an idea of what they might look like by the model she holds up as exemplary of integrating the human element into surveillance: Ben Gurion Airport, that legendary haven of security just outside Tel Aviv, Israel. “[The airport] use[s] a combination of security technologies and face-to-face passenger interviews to ensure the security of their flights,” Rogers says.

It’s certainly true that upon arriving at Ben Gurion, you aren’t long without face-to-face interaction with an Israeli army veteran. Almost immediately after entering its temperature-perfect interior, your first screening process begins. Personnel descend on you and rapidly fire questions: what cities did you visit, where did you stay, why did you travel to Israel? If you’re Jewish – or have a Jewish-sounding name – the questioning soon becomes muted and less rigorous and, most likely, dropped, although in some cases, recitation of names of the Jewish traveller’s nursery schools and summer camps are demanded, or words to religious songs and details of holiday rituals.

The passports of travellers are then given a small, neon sticker with a number between one and six on it. As Israeli journalist, Lia Tarachansky, wrote in 2010, “This number is a sticker you get on your passport and bags that helps the Israeli airport security evaluate your level of Zionism. ‘1’ is awesome, ‘6’ is you’re f—ed. 1 is reserved for white Jewish Israelis, 2 is for white Jewish non-Israelis and friendly internationals, 3 is a suspicious Israeli or international, 4 is sometimes given to non-white Israelis, 5 is for  Arab Israelis or questionable internationals, and 6 is for Palestinians, Muslims, and hostile internationals. Hostile is defined as not Zionist or suspected of questioning Zionism.”

Speaking plainly, Tarachansky translates the near-universal experience had by passers-through of Ben Gurion airport. Travellers with higher numbers get their luggage meticulously picked through; anything Arabic is suspect and the bearer is treated accordingly.

In praising the airport’s security screening in 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “it works on the principle that people are dangerous, not inanimate objects.” Like a caring friend, Goldberg offered his approbation of Ben Gurion’s approach before giving some constructive feedback on its protocol: In order to streamline the process at Ben Gurion, Goldberg suggests screeners just cut to the chase and ask people if they’re Jewish or not.

Very much like Rogers, Goldberg praises Ben Gurion for emphasising human intelligence rather than machinery. But what both of them are pushing for – albeit Goldberg more explicitly – is racial profiling, a tactic that has been largely discredited.

Tarachansky’s words quoted above come from her account of travelling through the airport with a fellow Israeli citizen – a Christian Palestinian from the port city of Jaffa. Tarachansky initially received a “1” on her passport, but after the security agent looked at her travel companion’s identity card that marked him as a Christian (and therefore Palestinian), her lucky number was revoked and Tarachansky was sent to the other line for more rigorous screening. “All the black people are in this line, all the Arab-looking people and the non-Zionist internationals. At least they’re not pretending their racial profiling is random.”

Racial profiling

Stories like these of Israel’s crude behaviour abound, nearly to the point of comic parody – from stopping international travellers from entering Israel, to holding them for hours before allowing them to board a flight because of their political positions.

Except that for Palestinians and Muslims, there is nothing comical about being perceived as a threat, because this treatment is not restricted to crossing the border. Whether a resident of the Israeli state, the Occupied Territories, or the Diaspora, Palestinians are rendered essential threats – including as demographic ones, which means their very existence in Israel is contested daily –  and thus, legitimate targets for war crimes – as the latest massacre in Gaza once again attests.

And back in the United States, it’s the same for people of Middle Eastern descent – with the extra stress and tedium at airports serving as just a hint of the perils of being Muslim in America.

But that Rogers is advocating for anything other than more profiling is only one of the realities we must suspend in order to entertain her argument. Here’s another: The notion that we manifest our internal emotions in physical expressions, a weary idea buoyed by recycled mythology more than anything else.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer Maria Konnikova appraises the research on lie-detecting – or the idea that “facial and physical cues… can give someone away” – and reveals that even scholars who have spent their careers studying the correlation between the two are unable to assert that any exists. While our perceptions may keep us out of trouble on a day-to-day basis, when asked to make a studied determination as to whether someone is fibbing, “our ability to tell a lie from the truth is hardly different from chance.”

Now, consider that Rogers is suggesting that the average overworked and lowly paid airport security guard, working eight-hour shifts at a checkpoint through which thousands of travellers pass every hour, master detections skills that challenge the most practiced and well-trained eyes.

Writer and former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent Jason Harrington described the inevitable mechanisation with which TSA agents integrate rules into their work, explaining: “when you work front-line security with an inflexible checklist as your guide, you find it’s easy to let critical thinking take a backseat to basic standard operating procedure compliance.”

In truth, the subtle wonders of human intelligence – certainly grand in theory and sometimes even in practice – is mostly just as dumb as and frequently more destructive than any machine.

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist in San Francisco, formerly based in the West Bank, Palestine. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharESilver