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Clumsy, expensive and privacy invading security

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The most thorough interview that I have ever had in my life was by a security guard at Tel Aviv's Ben-Guiron International Airport in the summer of 1997.

I was leaving Israel, where I had attended an academic conference, hosted at a exclusive retreat in Israeli West Jerusalem. The conference explored the role of Israeli courts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to legal scholars and jurists, some of the participants at the conference were Israeli and Palestinian activist lawyers who had represented Palestinians jailed during the First Intifada.

Following the conference, I stayed for a few days to visit sacred sites in the Holy Land. Although the conference had been funded by a private foundation, after the conference I paid my own way, and on an educator's salary I chose quite modest accommodations not far from BYU's Jerusalem Center in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

When I arrived at the airport some four hours early, as recommended, I was quickly directed to a well-spoken security guard in her early thirties. It became clear that I was now being interrogated. Pleasantries about how I enjoyed my stay quickly turned to pointed questions. What was the purpose of my visit? Why was I meeting with Palestinian activists? Why would I begin in luxurious Israeli accommodations and then travel to modest Palestinian accommodations?

Occasionally, my interrogator would pause. "Are you quite certain sure that what you have told me is correct?" Then she would leave to talk with a supervisor. I have every reason to believe that they were using some method to verify what I had shared. This happened several times.

Finally, my interrogator returned with her original smile. "Thank you Dr. Edwards, have a pleasant and safe journey home."

Given the incessant terrorist threats against Israel's very existence, I don't begrudge the Israeli authorities' decision to specially scrutinize an adult male travelling alone to their country for the first time, especially one who had met with high-profile activists followed by several days in East Jerusalem.

Such profiling struck me as a far more rational use of resources than the time that my entire family, after a vacation to Sea World, was subjected to a random special screening at the San Diego Airport. We tried to keep the incident "light" for the children's sake. I tried to catch a photo of my four-year-old child being wanded by TSA, but of course another TSA official quickly put a stop to that Kodak moment lest I compromise national security.

We were all reminded this weekend of just how humorless those San Diego TSA authorities are. Not only did software engineer John Tyner not get to his plane after refusing to submit to a groin check, but TSA threatened him with a $10,000 civil fine.

No one wishes to minimize the terrorist threat to commercial aviation. But could the hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars that are paying for privacy-invading full-body scanners, let alone the operational funds paying for demeaning pat downs be more efficiently allocated? Is screening of every single passenger — screening that in any other situation would be called voyeurism or fondling — less distasteful than selective intelligence-based profiling? One of the greatest challenges in an age of global terrorism is how to balance security, privacy and fairness. But to this observer, it seems that we have erred way too far on the side of clumsy, expensive and privacy-invading security instead of targeting our scarce resources on meaningful intelligence and risk profiling.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: pedwards@desnews.com