Not Only Is Profiling for Terrorism Racist, It's Tremendously Ineffective
Following the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack by 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a public debate has erupted over the proper way to prevent terrorists and other criminals from endangering airline passengers in the future. While many politicians, pundits, and public policy leaders have engaged in responsible and rational discussions about the intelligence failures that allowed Abdulmutallab to bring bomb materials on an aircraft, a whole host of conservatives have endorsed racial and ethnic profiling that would seek out terror suspects simply on the basis of the color of their skin or religious identity. While many right wingers seem to be comfortable with succumbing to racist and nativist hysteria, the truth is that racial and ethnic profiling is tremendously ineffective. A more rational approach to profiling based on behavior -- rather than race or identity -- would help keep Americans safe while maintaining our civil rights and constitutional freedoms.
THE RIGHT'S EXTREMIST REACTION: It wasn't long after Abdulmutallab's failed attack that conservative pundits and politicians began to call for racial and ethnic profiling of people from Muslim backgrounds. Right-wing radio host Mike Gallagher argued for separate lines at airports to "scrutinize anybody with the name Abdul or Ahmed or Mohammed," which are some of the most common names in the world. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said, "One hundred percent of the Islamic terrorists are Muslim, and that is our main enemy today. So why should we not be profiling people because of their religion?" Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote a column on Human Events titled "On Terrorism it's Time to Know, to Profile, and to Discriminate," in which he claimed that "cultural sensitivities" are preventing security officials from stopping terrorism; the next day, Gingrich clarified his comments by saying he thinks that profiling should be based "on behavior, not ethnic ... [or] racial profiling." Perhaps the most brazen call for ethnic profiling came from retired Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, who declared, "If you are an 18 to 28-year old Muslim man then you should be strip searched. And if we don't do that, there's a very high probability that we're going to lose an airliner."
WHY RACIAL PROFILING DOESN'T WORK: The fact is that racial and ethnic profiling doesn't work. It creates a false sense of security and causes law enforcement resources to be wasted in chasing the wrong targets. As the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights' reports, racial profiling "diverts precious law enforcement resources away from investigations of individuals...who have been linked to terrorist activity by specific and credible evidence...[and] ignores the possibility that someone who does not fit the profile may be engaged in terrorism." Indeed, On Dec. 28, two Middle Eastern men were pulled off a flight heading to Phoenix because passengers reported they were engaging in suspicious behavior; it ended up that the men were simply speaking a Middle Eastern language. The same day, a Nigerian businessman was taken off an airplane because passengers became suspicious that he was lingering in the bathroom for too long. The FBI confirmed that the individual's behavior was due to a legitimate illness. It's important to note that terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and do not simply belong to one religion, ethnicity, or nationality. The "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, was Jamaican and British. Al Qaeda recruit Adam Pearlman was an American. Germaine Lindsay, one of London's 7/7 bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Scott Roeder, who killed abortion-performing doctor George Tiller last year, was a white evangelical Christian. Racial profiling would, as Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council notes, extend our police dragnet over "potentially hundreds of thousands of [innocent] people every year" and drain precious resources away from other, more important security measures. And as a recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science concludes, racial profiling has been no more effective than random screening in rooting out terrorists.
A BETTER WAY: While racial and ethnic profiling is a failed strategy that goes against our basic values, there are smarter profiling methods that police and other security officials can use to prevent acts of terrorism. A memo titled "Assessing Behaviors" circulated by law enforcement officials in October 2002 outlined such a strategy. One of the writers of the memo pointed out, "Fundamentally, believing that you can achieve safety by looking at characteristics instead of behaviors is silly. If your goal is preventing attacks...you want your eyes and ears looking for pre-attack behaviors, not characteristics." Former Bush counterterrorism officials have also objected to racial profiling and point out that looking for suspicious behavior is much more important. Former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden said that seeking out terrorists isn't "a question of ethnicity or religion." Rather, "it's what people do that we should be paying attention to." Former Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued that "relying on preconceptions or stereotypes is actually kind of misleading and arguably dangerous" because terrorists intentionally recruit people "who don't fit the stereotype." Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, suggests "effective profiling...is based on the analysis of the...behavior of a passenger and an inspection of the traveler's itinerary and passport; it does not and should not be based on race, religion, nationality or color of skin." As former Homeland Security press secretary Russ Knocke explained in 2006, security personnel are, and should be, trained "to look for abnormal human behavior. ... That is in no way racial profiling. That is behavioral profiling."