This year is the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This confluence was impressed upon me yesterday when I received an invitation to a conference hosted jointly by the University of Mississippi and the University of South Africa, on “South African Democracy and US Civil Rights.” The abstract made for intriguing reading: “South Africa’s constitutional democracy is premised, inter alia, on the right of individuals and communities to re-invent their identities, to imagine new social worlds, and to participate in the public contestation of alternative political imaginations. This is in stark contrast to the apartheid state, where social identities were legally imposed, where individuals were not allowed to transcend the strictures of rigid classifications, and where the space for political action was severely constricted.”
As I was reading this, a broadcast of various officials’ testimony before the 9/11 Commission was playing on the radio. As background noise, it made for odd listening. All those agencies, bureaus, offices and teams clearly had information, knowledge, intelligence. What seemed to be missing was any ability to interpret what they had. Surely this kind of work is not easy–no one expects governments to be able to anticipate or control all the horrors of the world–but the more witnesses revealed to the commission, the more it seemed clear that the inability to interpret what data they did have resulted less from lack of facts than from a failure of analysis, lack of translators, innumerable petty rivalries and internal administrative bumbling of shocking proportions.
Yet media summaries of the commission’s inquiry seemed to drift away from questions of effective coordination and move toward granting greater “war” powers to law enforcement. Repeatedly, there were references analogizing the war on terror to the war on drugs–which has not been particularly distinguished either by its regard for human rights or by anything like success. Media commentators from various think tanks hypothesized confidently on TV and radio: If only the government didn’t have to apologize for compiling lists of people based on membership in suspect political organizations (concurrently, it was reported that the government has compiled a no-fly list that includes pacifists and attorneys for the ACLU, not just Al Qaeda). If only they didn’t have to worry about discriminating against ethnic or religious groups when deciding when to stop and search. If only, if only they were able to follow their every last hunch.
Anticipating criminality and deciphering intent will always be the most difficult and uncertain of endeavors. But haphazard, wide-net suspicion is no substitute for less intrusive, more practical safeguards. The hijackers didn’t necessarily “look” suspicious when they showed up at the airport on September 11; it would be terrible if their example were used to legitimize new rounds of ethnic or racial profiling. Such overbreadth ignores the better and simpler evidence against the hijackers: Regardless of arrest records or flying schools, they were carrying four-inch knives and no one caught it. Moreover, they could not have done what they did if the cockpit doors had been reinforced and locked, as Israel’s El Al Airlines has done for years. El Al also makes its baggage compartments shock-proof to lessen the possibility of an explosive package bringing a plane down.