"Don't touch my junk" probably became the refrain of the hour a few weeks back. John Tyner, the man who uttered this phrase at an airport has become a hero to those unhappy with new TSA screening procedures. Many insist that there is a simpler profile. Terrorists are all almost Arab, Muslim, and male they reason. So why subject grandmothers to pat-downs when we know what terrorists look like. Let's use racial profiling to make everyone's life easier.
I want to begin by disputing the notion that we will reliably be able to easily pick out would-be terrorists if we start profiling. It is the case now, that many of those who try and hijack airlines are young Arab males. But to assume that we would be able to stop terrorists by pulling aside such people is to assume that groups like Al Qaeda are not perceptive or observant. They will eventually notice that everyone who gets enhanced scrutiny is a young Arab male. So they will increasingly recruit people who don't fit the mold. There are certainly plenty of white and Asian Muslims in the world. In countries like Bosnia, Turkey, and Albania, there are millions of light-skinned Muslims who don't fit the stereotype of Middle-Easterners wearing turbans. About 5% of Muslims in American mosques are of Asian, European, or white American extraction, precisely the people we don't tend to think of as Muslims. With around 6 million Muslims in the US, that translates into at least 300,000 Muslims who would have US passports, non-Islamic sounding names, and non-Arab appearances. When we consider the rest of the world including places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia, Turkey, and Western Europe, it becomes clear that there are millions of Muslims who could be recruited for terrorism who wouldn't get special attention if we move to racial profiling.
Already, there have been attempts to commit terrorist attacks on the part of non-white Muslims. Richard Reid--who is the reason we have to take our shoes off at airports--is one example. Neither can we be assured that all future terrorist suspects will be young men. Israel has seen no shortage of female suicide bombers in recent years. We have often heard it said that "white grandmothers are not terrorists, so we need not bother them." But given the growing numbers of white Muslims in the world, and the incentive of terrorist groups to recruit people who aren't young Arab males if we start profiling, the next hijacking could very well be done by a white grandmother.
So on balance, I doubt that shifting to profiling will do very much to decrease the actual number of terrorist attacks on airplanes. But there will also be negative implications in terms of international relations. People in Arab nations will see Arabs singled out for special attention, and will likely perceive the US to be treating them unfairly. The US will conform to the stereotype of an imperialistic, racist nation bent on mistreating Arabs and Muslims. The average person on the Arab street will not join Al Qaeda because of his anger over profiling. But they could be more likely to pressure their governments not to cooperate with an America. Arab governments needing to maintain popular legitimacy to stay in power will have a tougher time offering the US basing rights or providing intelligence to US authorities, two things that are critical to maintaining national security.
The end result might be less of an ability to project power in the Middle East, and less ability to get Arab governments to cooperate in shutting down terrorist attacks in their earliest stages. In a 2010 Zogby poll, only 16% of respondents were hopeful about American policy in the Middle East while 63% were discouraged. Moreover, 57% of Arabs said Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would be good for the Middle East. Now simply could not be a worse time to alienate Arabs. And yet, having news reports on Arab television of innocent young men being targeted for their race and religion would do exactly that.
None of this takes into account the moral and constitutional considerations of profiling. To focus special attention on members of a certain race is in effect to treat them differently solely because of the color of their skin. It is to make them wear a scarlet letter in public for the sins of a tiny minority of terrorists whom they most likely have never met. A young Arab male who sees himself pulled aside for special attention while whites file past can only think of himself as a second-class citizen in a nation where after a sordid past including slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Japanese internment, and the trail of tears, no one is supposed to be a second class citizen.
Conservatives who embrace racial profiling would need to abandon their long-standing interpretation of the 14th amendment's equal protection clause as preventing the government from considering race in how it treats its citizens. In cases about affirmative action, conservatives invoke the 14th amendment in claiming that public schools cannot discriminate against white applicants, even in pursuing what they deem to be a socially utile outcome of providing more opportunities to minorities to bring about racial equality and redress past discrimination. If government cannot keep a person out of his first choice college because of his race, how can it then pat him down and humiliate him in front of hundreds of passengers because of it?
Of course, there is the standard refrain that if profiling can save even one life, then we ought to do it. This depends on the assumption that profiling would actually decrease terrorism on net, which there is good reason to doubt. Given the immense toll of terrorism though, one sympathizes with this sentiment. But the logic is untenable if we take it to its conclusion. We might diminish crime in inner cities if we put young black males in preventative detention on a regular basis and officially approved stopping and frisking them while allowing whites and Asians to pass. The reason we don't do that even if it did decrease crime is because it is morally repugnant and because it makes some people second class citizens. The same logic should apply here.
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