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British Terror Plot Sparks Fierce Debate Over Aviation Security

The revelation of an alleged plot to blow up several airliners flying out of Britain sparked new special security measures at British airports, measures that caused headaches for passengers and airlines alike with long security lines and canceled flights. There are now proposals for speeding up the long and often cumbersome security screening process, at least for some passengers.

Published reports say the British government is discussing streamlining airport security through passenger profiling, a method by which certain passengers would be singled out for random checks based on behavior, travel patterns or most controversially, appearance.

There was no official comment on the report. But it immediately raised charges of potential racism from the country's Muslim community, who felt they would be singled out for special treatment by profiling. Metropolitan Police Superintendent Ali Desai said on British television such profiling, if based on racial appearance rather than solid intelligence work, would be counterproductive to counter-terrorist efforts.

"What you are suggesting is that we have a new offense in this country called 'traveling whist Asian.' It is unpalatable to everyone," he said. "It is communities which defeat terrorism, and what we do not want to do is actually alienate the very communities who are going to help us catch terrorists."

Security experts say the massive airport gridlock caused by the new security measures imposed last week underscored the need for an overhaul of airport security measures. Aviation Security International editor Philip Baum, an air security consultant, tells VOA the current system of subjecting everyone to same degree of screening is simply too cumbersome.

"I think there needs to be a considerable change to the aviation security system that we see not only in this country, but around the world," he said. "We need an intelligent approach to screening, and need to recognize that there are certain groups of passengers that pose no threat to aviation. I am not saying that we need to exclude anybody from the screening process, but we need to 'fast track' certain people through the system."

Philip Baum says profiling is much misunderstood and, if taught and applied properly, does not single out any single racial group. He points out that the alleged plot was in fact uncovered through a form of profiling.

"Ultimately the current plot, if proven to be true, was identified through profiling. Certain groups were kept under surveillance more than others," he added. "I do not believe that the British authorities are surveilling every person every day of their life monitoring every person's activities. They are targeting their resources at the areas of greatest concern. That is what we should be doing at the airport security checkpoint."

But critics say fast tracking some people while singling out others for special treatment amounts to a kind of "airport apartheid" that would single out people because of their color. Member of Parliament Shahid Malik says terrorists would quickly find a way around it.

"When you think about it, these terrorists are not exactly stupid," he explained. "And if you are looking for someone with a beard and that has brown skin, then they'll put someone who is a white Muslim forward without a beard. So even in the fight against terrorism, it could be counterproductive. We might get a bit complacent. I think the reality is that these things must be intelligence-led, and not beard-led. I think that would be very dangerous."

In a phone interview, Robert Ayers, an intelligence and security expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, says what is inescapable is that the recent plotters were all young British Muslims. He says that the arguments of both sides in the debate over profiling have merit.

"Although that may make for very, very good policing - in other words, you are focusing your resources on the group that is most likely to be the terrorists - it also represents a form of policing that causes political dissent and grievances from within the Muslim community because they say, and rightly so, 'You are picking on us,'" said Mr. Ayers. "Well, there is no answer to this because you are indeed picking on them. But you are not picking on them because they are Muslims. You are picking on them because that is where the terrorists are coming from. So both sides will be right, and both sides will argue they are right, and both sides will still not like the other for what they are doing."

Ayers says the debate boils down to working out a balance between moving the greatest amount of people you can in the quickest way you can, and security. It is risk management, he says, because there is no such thing as perfect security.