Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Screw Grandma

Charles Krauthammer recently wrote an op-ed ["Give Grandma a Pass; Politically Correct Screening Won't Catch Jihadists"] in the post supporting racial profiling for the purpose of weeding out terrorists. Krauthammer makes the case that too much time is wasted on patting down 83 year old grandmothers, and that we should just focus on who we all know to be the real potential terrorists.
Assuaging feelings is a good thing, but hunting for terrorists this way is simply nuts. The fact is that jihadist terrorism has been carried out from Bali to Casablanca to Madrid to London to New York to Washington by young Muslim men of North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian origin.

This is not a stereotype. It is a simple statistical fact. Yes, you have your shoe-bomber, a mixed-race Muslim convert, who would not fit the profile. But the overwhelming odds are that the guy bent on blowing up your train traces his origins to the Islamic belt stretching from Mauritania to Indonesia.

Colbert I. King wrote a response ["You Can't Fight Terrorism With Racism"] a few days later in the Post. His argument basically centered around the inherent inequality in singling out certain groups over others for scrutiny, something that has been endlessly repeated in the profiling debate. It's one thing when you're talking about traffic stops, it's quite another when you're talking about dead people. However, King points out another problem with attempting to profile terrorists.
But let's get really current. What about those non-Arab, non-South Asians without black or brown skins who are bombing apartment buildings, train stations and theaters in Russia. They've taken down passenger jets, hijacked schools and used female suicide bombers to a fare-thee-well, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. They are Muslims from Chechnya, and would pass the Krauthammer/Sperry eyeball test for terrorists with ease. After all, these folks hail from the Caucasus; you can't get any more Caucasian than that.

What the racial profilers are proposing is insulting, offensive and -- by thought, word and deed, whether intentional or not -- racist. You want estrangement? Start down that road of using ethnicity, national origin and religion as a basis for police action and there's going to be a push-back unlike any seen in this country in many years.
What King did not do is take Krauthammer's suggestions to their logical conclusions. Imagine this scenario. The airport has two security lines. People would be directed into one line if they immediately passed the eyeball test, i.e. whites, the elderly, women, children, and hispanics (the British Police have demonstrated how simple eyeballing that last one is). The others would have to file through the examination line, where they were vigorously examined by security personnel. One could say that the separate lines wouldn't be necessary, but why not? Letting everyone group together and then trying to pick through the crowd would be unnecessarily cumbersome, defeating one of the purposes of racial profiling, which is to "give grandma a pass." Hopefully, such an image sufficiently brings back the specter of "white" and "colored" divisions under Jim Crow laws to give even the most hardline individuals pause in considering such a system.

The best solution, as one man pointed out in a letter to the editor, would be to do as the Israelis have, and make security training focused solely on spotting terrorist behavior. Trying to focus on anything else is simply a distraction. Random searches are still useful for their deterrent effect, and for keeping the searching skills of security personnel sharp. And I'd say that it is in our democratic interest to share the burdens of increased security, least we take out our anxiety on those who we outnumber.

Links used in this post:
Krauthammer's Op-Ed
Colbert I. King's Response
The Wikipedia Entry on Jean Charles de Menezes
David Harris's Letter to the Editor


At 5:18 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I guess my feelings on racial profiling are pretty mixed but leaning more toward the skeptical than they have been in the past. As you quoted from Colbert King, the increasing prominence of converts and Caucasian Caucasians in Islamist terrorism is reason enough to doubt the efficacy of said tactic. However, Kyle, I'm not sure I buy your argument against using "religion as a basis for police action." This is something that can be done subtly (I think it makes sense to monitor Muslim charities more closely than Christian ones, for example), without risking the estrangement of the Muslim community that would come about from your reductio ad absurdium example.

Would it be moral? I'm inclined to say yes. Freedom of religion is a fine thing but not an absolute moral principle - had the Feds had advance warning of the Heaven's Gate or the Jim Jones cult mass suicides, intervention would certainly have been the moral course of action. This isn't to compare Islam to loonie new age cults so much as to make the point that governments have an obligation to consider the role of religion and religious organizations in facilitating infringements on other peoples' rights. Justin Berkowitz said it better: if you practice at the church of no taxes then the government has every right to send you to the temple of jail. Racial profiling may be a moral and pragmatic gray area, but religious profiling seems like a more useful and a far less ethically questionable tactic.

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

Nick, I (foolishly) wasn't thinking about monitoring Islamic communities more closely so much as I was talking about transportation security screening situations, which is what the King and Krauthammer articles were more directly discussing. I am not so naive as to think that we should be paying equal attention to all religions in trying to fight terrorism. But (I think we can all agree) there is no way for a police officer running down a man in a subway to discern his religion with absolute certainty. Domestic intelligence gathering is a different issue in my mind. King's definition is a little misleading: "The practice of using ethnicity, national origin and religion as primary factors in deciding whom police should regard as possible terrorists -- in other words, racial profiling." As you point out, religious profiling can be noticeably different and even effective, but only when applied in the right circumstances.


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