The Latest Trouble With Racial Profiling

All that American Airlines and lawyers for a Secret Service agent agree on is that, on Christmas Day, the agent and his gun were aboard an American flight from Baltimore to Dallas for his assignment protecting the president at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. After that, accounts diverge: the agent, identified as Walied Shater, 33, an Arab-American, was told to leave the plane, sparking charges that he was the victim of illegal racial profiling and countercharges that, post-9-11, pilots should have absolute authority over who flies. Lost in the shouting is the fact that some top federal sleuths view profiling as a way to let bad guys slip through. "Profiling is just bad police work," says one U.S. Customs Service official.

Shater had filled out the required E2 form identifying him as a federal agent carrying a gun. But when American canceled his original flight and rebooked him, say his lawyers, the gate agent, unable to find a blank E2, crossed out the flight and seat numbers on the original form and wrote in the new ones. After Shater was seated, he was asked to leave the plane for more checks. While Shater was away, a flight attendant pulled out a book--"The Crusades Through Arab Eyes"--that Shater had left in his seat pocket. Flight attendants then told the pilot they were "concerned" about Shater and his book with "Arabic-style print," according to the incident report released by American. The pilot inspected Shater's E2, finding it illegible and incomplete. He left the cockpit to talk to Shater, who made "loud abusive comments," according to the report. Passenger Molly Reeve, 28, did not see a confrontation, but "I saw him come off the plane," she told NEWSWEEK. "He was not belligerent."

The pilot phoned a security manager at American headquarters, who later identified Shater through local law-enforcement agents. "With the lives of the... passengers and crew [at stake], I... edge[d] toward the side of safety," said the pilot in a statement.

President Bush said he would be "madder than heck" if Shater had been the victim of racial profiling. The Transportation Department is investigating the incident. Argues Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, "It's reasonable to give pilots wide latitude... but not if there's a pattern of decisions that reflect racial discrimination."

The public seems squarely behind the airline, reflecting the post-9-11 belief that security comes first. To many, criticism of racial profiling reflects not only political correctness, but the realization that it risks overlooking bad guys. In 1998 Customs eliminated racial profiling of airline passengers and implemented "passenger analysis," in which agents examine airline manifests for suspicious embarkation points and itineraries. It seems to work: in 2000, Customs conducted 70 percent fewer searches than in the late 1990s, but increased its yield of contraband 25 percent.

Sharon Begley and Debra Rosenberg