If anyone ever wondered what demons lurking in American culture might have possessed the singer Michael Jackson to bleach his skin and destroy his once-noble African features through a series of bizarre plastic surgeries – to literally cut off his nose to spite his face – all they need to do is cast their attention on the debate that has ensued in recent weeks in the United States about “racial profiling.”
Racial profiling is a long-discredited American law-enforcement technique whereby police identify individuals as suspects based on their apparent race, ethnicity, age, and other simple identity criteria. This was a central feature of abuse against African-American and Latino populations throughout the country, but is now illegal and has few defenders. Except where Arabs and Muslims are concerned.
Following the attacks on the London mass transport system, the New York City subway instituted random searches of passengers, as a reassurance to the public and a deterrent to terrorists. Many American commentators have condemned this policy, as well as the U.S. government’s entire counterterrorism strategy, for not engaging in racial profiling against Arab and Muslim Americans.
Many Americans are used to thinking in simplistic terms about race and ethnicity, of living in a world divided between black and white in which identity is obvious from pigmentation and can be discerned at a glance. Proponents of profiling have proven amazingly resistant to understanding that identifying Arab and Muslim Americans based on appearance is simply impossible.
Leaving aside the fact that over half of the Arabs in the United States are Christians, Arabs can resemble almost any group of southern Europeans, Latin Americans, Central and South Asians, or Africans.
Even more preposterous would be any attempt to identify Muslims by appearance, since Muslims come from almost every part of the world, and constitute a fifth of humanity. And, since about a third of American Muslims are African-Americans, any futile attempt at profiling of Muslims, especially in urban areas such as New York City, would immediately degenerate into yet another way of profiling black people.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wants racial profiling but would “immediately exempt Hispanics, Scandinavians and East Asians,” as if Hispanics were readily distinguishable from Arabs and South Asians. And, as his Washington Post colleague Colby King pointed out, “by eliminating Scandinavians from his list of obvious terror suspects, Krauthammer would have authorities give a pass to all white people.”
Supporters of racial profiling cling to the idea that you can tell who is an Arab, and even a Muslim, just by looking at them. I was on a CNN debate recently with a profiling supporter who, when confronted with the facts, resorted to holding up the photos of the 19 hijackers of September 11, 2001, and insisting: “They all look alike.”
The tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the London subway could have been based in part on his dress and behavior, as British authorities maintain. But almost certainly Menezes would not been shot eight times in the head had he not been a young, brown-skinned man. British police looked at a Brazilian electrician and saw a Pakistani suicide-bomber.
Not that all the London bombers were of Pakistani origin – a fourth man was Jamaican. The failed bombers in the second group were all East Africans. And then you have Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, to mention but a few. But it’s okay, “they all look alike.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has also demanded that New York police use ethnic profiling in the subway searches, maintaining that “the London suicide bombers on July 7 and July 21 fit a very precise intelligence profile.” He also found that “[T]hey all look a certain way.” The police replied “racial profiling is illegal, of doubtful effectiveness, and against department policy.”
Demagogues who call for profiling against American Muslims need to drop the pretence that this could be based on appearances or names. It would require Americans to carry identity documents confirming their official religious designation. And even if it were possible to profile Arabs or Muslims by sight, or Muslims were forced to carry religious identification to be produced on demand, the effect would still be to cast an impossibly wide pool of suspects and distract attention from behavioral and other contingent factors that may actually point to a potential threat.
Race, ethnicity and religious affiliation, even when accurately identified, are widely recognized by law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials as false leads, which in themselves say nothing relevant about whether or not an individual may be about to commit a crime.
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 authorities’ hand and a helpful hint for how not to get caught.
When U.S. airport security was based on a supposedly neutral, secret computer profiling system, dating from 1996 and leading up to September 11, 2001, the evidence strongly suggested that it resulted in widespread discrimination against Arab and Muslim travelers. However, it did not prevent the September 11 attacks.
The intensified post-September 11 airport security regime has been both more thorough and more equitable, despite the ongoing bureaucratic nightmare of “no-fly” lists. There was more evidence of intentional discrimination against Arabs and Muslims in domestic air travel before September 11 than after, precisely because the U.S. government has had to accept that serious security threats require policies that do not boil down to crude stereotypes or rely on subjective judgments about ethnicity.
Toward the end of his tenure as the first secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, explained to Americans: “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.”
Most Americans understand that fighting terrorism with racism is repugnant to their values and won’t work. And most people have enough sense not to cut off their nose to spite their face. But not everyone.