The attacks on the London mass-transport system and the random
searches now in place on the New York City subways have again raised
the issue of racial profiling against Arab-Americans and Muslims.
The New York Police Department insists that the searches will be just
that–random–and one should presume that its officers will hold to
Those who urge the government to ask officers enforcing security
policies like New York’s random searches to engage in profiling of
Arab-Americans and Muslims based on appearance are not only advocating
something degrading and pointless–they are asking for the impossible.
Leaving aside the fact that more than half of the Arabs in the United
States are Christians, Arabs simply do not possess to any set of
physical characteristics that either plainly bind them together or set
them apart from many other American communities.
Arabs are a very diverse ethnic group who can resemble almost any
group of southern Europeans, Latin Americans, Central and South Asians
Even more preposterous would be any attempt to identify Muslims by
appearance, as Muslims come from almost every part of the world, and
constitute one-fifth of humanity. And, because about one-third of
American Muslims are African-Americans, any futile attempt at
profiling of Muslims, especially in urban areas such as New York City,
will immediately degenerate into yet another way of profiling black
The tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by British police may
well have been based in part on his dress and behavior, as United
Kingdom authorities maintain. But almost certainly Menezes would not
have been shot eight times in the head if he had not been a young,
British anti-terrorism cops were capable of looking at a Brazilian
electrician and seeing a Pakistani suicide-bomber, and a terrible
injustice was the direct result.
Not that all the London bombers were of Pakistani origins–the fourth
As former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge explained, “There
was a legitimate concern right after 9/11 that the face of
international terrorism was basically from the Middle East. We know
differently. We don’t have the luxury of kidding ourselves that there
is an ethnic or racial or country profile.”
Remember the likes of Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla?
Demagogues who call for profiling, and even across-the-board
discrimination, against American Muslims should acknowledge that in
practice this could not be based on appearances or names.
It would probably require Americans to be categorized by, or register
their faith with, the government, and carry identity documents
confirming their official religious designation.
How else to distinguish Arab Muslims and Christians, Hindu and Muslim
South Asians, Muslims and Christians of African origin and so forth?
Even if it were possible to profile Arabs or Muslims by sight, or if
they were forced to carry something equivalent to a yellow star to be
produced on demand, the effect would still be to create an impossibly
wide pool of suspects and distract attention from behavioral and other
contingent factors that may point to a potential threat.
Worse than useless, such approaches would drain resources from serious
intelligence and law-enforcement tactics, and alert terrorists to
exactly what appearances to avoid.
Only two approaches in dealing with mass groups of people make sense:
comprehensiveness as at airports, or randomness as in subways.
Anything in between serves less as a deterrent to terrorists and more
as a tipping of the government’s hand and a helpful hint for how not
to get caught.
When airport security was based on a supposedly neutral, secret
computer profiling system, from 1996 to Sept. 11, 2001, the evidence
strongly suggested that it resulted in widespread discrimination
against Arab and Muslim travelers, but it did not prevent the Sept. 11
The intensified post-Sept. 11 airport security regime has been both
more thorough and more equitable. There was more evidence of
discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in domestic air travel before
Sept. 11 than after, precisely because the government became committed
to providing effective security.
The government seems to be learning that serious security threats
require policies that do not boil down to crude stereotypes or rely on
subjective judgments about ethnicity.
Race, ethnicity and religious affiliation, even when accurately
identified, are widely recognized by law enforcement and
counterterrorism officials as false leads, which in themselves say
nothing relevant about whether an individual may be about to commit a
Institutionalized racism is repugnant to our values, but more to the
point, it cannot be the basis of serious, workable policies that
provide real security.