Putting a face on terror - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Putting a face on terror

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MADISON (WKOW) -- In light of the Christmas Day terrorist plot on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the issue of profiling for security purposes has surfaced once again.

Can an expert identify a terrorist just by looking at the person? How far are we willing to go in order to ensure Americans' safety at the airport? And what exactly does a terrorist look like, anyway?

"Everybody's pretty sure that the 85-year-old Lutheran grandmother from Hibbing, Minnesota isn't going to be a terrorist with a bomb concealed under her skirt," said Jeff Scott Olson, a civil rights lawyer in Madison.

But that doesn't mean a 45-year-old Muslim man from Saudi Arabia is hiding a bomb, either.

Olson says you can't put a face on terrorism.

"The minute you start targeting your security practices on people of a different color or who are from different countries, you miss all the native-born white extremists and militia members and Ku Klux Klan members that might be capable of violence," said Olson.

But others say profiling works, and we should use this tool to keep our skies safe.

"If somebody visits Yemen and they happen to be Muslim and they happen to be a male, include it in the mix. Do smart screening; it will stop terrorist attacks," said Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the house, was in La Crosse Monday. He said profiling is a valuable tool.

"I believe we should discriminate. Show me somebody who is a young male, regularly going to a terrorist website, seeking to go to an al-Qaeda camp, and I will discriminate against them," said Gingrich.

Olson says stopping someone at the airport because they are wearing a turban is blatant discrimination, something this country has fought against for decades.

"The sort of profiling they're doing now obviously doesn't work completely, and I think that demonstrates that it's not the silver bullet solution to the security problem in the airports," said Olson.

There were a number of warning signs with suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that had nothing to do with his appearance. He was traveling without any luggage, which is a big red flag. Plus, his name was in the U.S. terror database before the Christmas Day flight.

The local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation says it does not profile based on ethnicity or religious background. Instead, agents look for indicators of suspicious behavior. The FBI would not clarify what those indicators include.

Online reporting by Jamie Hersch
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