I'm at the airport, on my way to London for a short holiday. The young woman leafs through my passport while reciting her introductory security questions:
"Who packed your suitcase? Has it been with you since you packed it? Did you receive any gifts or presents to take to anyone abroad? I ask because..."
I know the drill by heart. Yes I packed it myself, no it hasn't left my sight, no I haven't received gifts for anyone abroad, yes I understand that it is necessary to go through this rigmarole...I call it thus because experience has shown that it is but a prelude before being dispatched for "enhanced security checks."
But she is still leafing through my passport. She pauses at the personal information page of the passport, looks down and winces. Charming. It is a pretty awful picture, admittedly, but still, a little subtlety wouldn't be out of place...
But that's not what caught her attention. "What is the origin of your name?"
"I see." She flicks through the passport again. "And what language do you speak with your siblings at home?"
And this was before a certain ethnic countryman of mine tried to blow himself and hundreds of others up aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit...
I HAVE a theory about the stringent security checks at Ben-Gurion. I don't think that they actually have very much to do with security; rather, they are the consequence of a misunderstood tourism initiative. You know all these advertisements for holiday destinations? The ones with a blurb beneath a picture of a sun-kissed beach, saying something along the lines of, "Once you arrive, you'll never want to leave"? Well, this is the Israeli interpretation. "Once you come in, we're never going to let you leave..."
To be serious, though: I would be untruthful if I said that the shakedown that I receive whenever I leave the country is anything more than a minor inconvenience. More importantly, one would have to be naïve - or supremely foolish - not to appreciate the need for the extreme security at Ben-Gurion. It is not for nothing that it is considered one of the safest airports in the world; it is not for nothing that it needs to be one of the safest airports in the world.
So it's no coincidence that, following my benighted compatriot's attempt to join the ranks of global Jihad - whatever that really is - commentators are actively advocating the "Israelification" of international airports. One has to respond to threats of extreme violence, after all. But is this actually the way to go?
Let me put it this way: I doubt that I would be complaining about the security regime at Ben-Gurion, were it not for the fact that I seem to be singled out for "enhanced security checks" pretty much every time I fly out of the country. Me and all the other people unfortunate enough not to be named Mordechai Ben-Zion, or something similar.
One must be fair, of course. Officially, the airport denies the use of so-called ethnic profiling as a security tool. As far as I can make out, they say the emphasis is upon what is called a behavioral analysis: Using carefully calibrated questions to identify potential security risks.
"The word 'profiling' is a political invention by people who don't want to do security," Rafi Sela, the head of a global transport security consultancy - and an Israeli - told the international press last week. "To us, it doesn't matter if he is black, white, young or old. It's just his behavior."
Fair enough. But that doesn't explain why, whenever I have someone poking gingerly through my smalls with rubber gloves, my companions undergoing full luggage checks always seem to be Christian tourists from middle America or nice Arab families from Nazareth going on holiday.
There are people who are comfortable with the notion of ethnic profiling, of course.
"The intrusive inconvenience to those who belong to high-risk groups," a commentator in the Hebrew press wrote this week, "should create a measure of deterrence and difficulty for terrorists. The price of misguided leniency in the other direction is much higher."
Let's for a moment assume that he is correct - that Arabs and non-Jews are high-risk groups, and thus need to suffer the "intrusive inconvenience" of enhanced security for the greater good. Does this actually make everyone else safer?
The last time security was breached at Ben-Gurion, apparently, was in 2002, when a passenger absentmindedly took his handgun on a flight with him. This fact is usually cited as evidence of the efficacy of security measures at the airport. But, let's stop for a moment and backtrack a little. This fellow, who accidentally carried his gun on board his flight, what ethnicity would you think that he was? Precisely. And, taking this into account, how do you think he was able to beat the security checks? Exactly.
The argument against ethnic profiling isn't one of political
correctness, it's one of simple effectiveness. It doesn't take much
imagination to think about how, given the wrong conditions, the
loophole created by the measure could be exploited to devastating
effect. Picking so-called high risk groups for enhanced checks isn't
simply discriminatory, it is lazy and it is dangerous.
I don't really care about being stopped any more: If anything, it just
stops me from spending money I don't have - on things I don't need - in
Duty Free. But it doesn't make me feel any safer.