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No Excuse for Racial Profiling

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The failed attempt on Christmas Day to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane has some people calling for racial profiling. In fact, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll shows that an alarming majority of Americans support ethnic profiling. However, I contend that this is a misguided reaction that can actually be counterproductive. And the attempted Christmas bombing is no excuse for it.

First of all, what kind of profile are we supposed to be concerned about? After 9/11, people looked suspiciously at Middle-Eastern-looking individuals. But the would-be Christmas bomber was a black man from Nigeria. He and many other high-profile terror suspects have fallen short of the Middle-Eastern profile, as Bruce Schneier recently pointed out in a New York Times blog post:

"Terrorists don't fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. They're European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was Nigerian. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a Jamaican father. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was the Unabomber. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004 were female. Palestinian terrorists routinely recruit 'clean' suicide bombers, and have used unsuspecting Westerners as bomb carriers.

"Without an accurate profile, the system can be statistically demonstrated to be no more effective than random screening."

In fact, racial profiling can make us less safe. Multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.

Furthermore, a 2004 report by Amnesty International provides overwhelming evidence that racial profiling is not only ineffective and counterproductive in finding the real criminals, but that it also encourages hate and undermines national unity. The report was based on six public hearings nationwide and more than a year of intensive research.

My dear friend Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani American whose police cadet son died while attempting to save lives at the World Trade Center on 9/11, sums up the issue this way: "Profiling generates anger and mistrust, the leading causes of violence."

Yes, anger and mistrust lead to violence, which leads to anger and mistrust, which lead to more violence. And so on.

Therefore, just as racial profiling has failed in the "war on drugs", it is likewise doomed to fail in the "war on terror". We will be much better protected if law enforcement and security personnel focus more on what people are doing, and not on what they look like or whether they worship in a church or a mosque.

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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