By Nihad Awad
WORD COUNT: 962
(Nihad Awad is national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America's largest Muslim civil rights organization. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Politicians and pundits ranging from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to New York’s Rep. Peter King are calling for racial and religious profiling at our nation’s airports in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attack in Detroit.
A conservative radio host told Fox News "there should be a separate [airport security] line to scrutinize anybody with the name 'Abdul' or 'Ahmed' or 'Mohammad.’”
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind said he intends to re-introduce a bill that would allow police to use racial profiling to target “young Muslims of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian background.”
Retired Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney took his call for profiling even further. On Fox News, he said: “If you are an 18 to 28-year-old Muslim man, then you should be strip searched.”
This would be a dream come true for terrorists.
Many arguments can be made against these renewed calls to institute profiling.
There is the moral and ethical argument that profiling violates an individual’s human rights.
There is the argument that profiling is un-American that it violates the very principles that our nation was founded on and that we all hold dear.
There is the argument that profiling is both ineffective and counterproductive.
In response to calls for profiling following the Christmas Day incident, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told an interviewer for National Public Radio: “I'm going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling…I think it's not only problematic from a civil rights' standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective.”
Even the Bush administration Justice Department stated in a 2003 advisory report: “Racial profiling in law enforcement is not merely wrong, but also ineffective. Race-based assumptions in law enforcement perpetuate negative racial stereotypes that are harmful to our rich and diverse democracy, and materially impair our efforts to maintain a fair and just society.”
The use of racial and religious profiling can divert precious law enforcement resources from investigations of individuals who have been linked to terrorist activity by specific and credible evidence. It ignores the possibility that someone who does not fit the profile may be engaged in terrorism, or may be an unwitting accomplice to terrorism.
In 1995, after bombing the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh was able to flee while officers operated on the false theory that “Arab terrorists” had committed the attack.
An editorial published by the San Diego Union-Tribune stated in part:
“But aside from the moral objections, as we’ve seen, profiling by characteristic isn’t very efficient. The minute U.S. officials put out the word that they’re not scrutinizing people with blond hair and blue eyes is the minute that al-Qaida starts recruiting people with blond hair and blue eyes. Would looking for Arab-Americans have turned up a passenger that resembled ‘American Taliban’ fighter John Walker Lindh? Would applying extra scrutiny to people with foreign-sounding names have kept would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid off a plane?”
There is also the “creepiness” argument. How would airport security personnel determine who is and who is not Muslim? Do we really want to have each passenger asked about their religious beliefs? And what if the passenger’s last name is “Muhammad,” but they say they are not Muslim? Which line will they be sent to then? What about converts to Islam whose name and skin color do not “give away” their status as Muslims?
We often hear the “Swedish grandmother” argument from those who promote profiling that we should focus security efforts on the real problem, read “Muslims,” rather than on what is essentially a coded term for “white people.”
Then there is the constitutional argument.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to be safe from unreasonable search. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional for a representative of the government to make decisions based on race.
But of all the arguments against racial and religious profiling at airports, one stands head and shoulders above the others - the argument that profiling hands an underserved victory to the terrorists.
Attacks such as the failed plot to bomb the airliner on Christmas Day cannot possibly have a real impact on our nation in military terms. These attacks are a form of psychological warfare designed to impact public opinion the very definition of terrorism and make us do things we would normally reject, such as profiling.
Profiling sends the message to millions of Muslim travelers that it is their faith, not terrorism, that is the problem. This is precisely the talking point put forward by the religious extremists of Al-Qaeda who say the West is at war with Islam and all Muslims, and that everyone had better choose sides.
Religious profiling is a recruiting and public relations tool for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Let’s not do Al-Qaeda’s work for them.
If not profiling, what action can we take to boost airline safety and security?
First look at behavior, not at faith or skin color. Then spend what it takes to obtain more bomb-sniffing dogs, to install more sophisticated bomb-detection equipment and to train security personnel in identifying the behavior of real terror suspects.
Along with boosting training and detection equipment, clean up the inaccurate terror watch lists that have ballooned in the post-9/11 era and work the kinks out of an intelligence system that would let a person get on a plane to America even after his own father had notified security services about his disturbing behavior.
Using profiling may make some people feel safer, but it is a false sense of security that ultimately harms our nation and the principles on which it was founded.