To the Editor of The New York Times:

Yesterday, returning from Vancouver, Canada, to Seattle, I sat in a 90-minute line of automobiles at United States Customs.

Profiling is a primary mechanism for terrorism deterrence at such borders. Airline passengers concealing minute amounts of explosives present different challenges from drivers, who could be ferrying weapons hidden in car trunks with the intent of destroying downtown Seattle buildings.

Nonetheless, yesterday’s customs officials did not appear to be primarily focused on detection of “bad things.” Intelligent and strategic interrogation of drivers and passengers seemed a primary mechanism for preliminary identification of potentially “bad people,” or at least people whose behaviors elicited sufficient suspicion to warrant further search.

While we must improve detection of bombs, weapons and their components, we all know that “things” don’t hijack airplanes; terrorists do. However much we focus on improved technologies, we must also use better understanding of people to identify those who place us all in peril.


The writer is a psychiatrist.

Published New York Times December 30, 2009

In response to the Editorial “The System Failed