As a patriotic act, I'd like to offer my fingerprints to John Ashcroft. Not because I'm guilty of anything, but because I'm not and therefore, I don't give a rip whether Ashcroft or anyone else knows the discreet contours of my little pinkie.
But Arabs care. And liberals care. The American Civil Liberties Union cares. And some Muslims care. They care because, alas, they are confused. On C-Span's "Washington Journal" call-in show Thursday morning, callers repeatedly described a recent Ashcroft proposal as racial "profiling." Most were divided along partisan lines.
"Yes, it's profiling," said the Dems. "No, it's not, in fact ship `em all back where they came from," said the Republicans.
Let's pause for a brief non-partisan reprise of the facts:
Under Ashcroft's proposal, only immigrants from certain countries that may be high risk to our national security (think terrorists) would be targeted for stricter identification. Estimates are that as many as 100,000 foreign visitors would be fingerprinted and photographed in the first year of the new system.
Once admitted, these same visitors would be required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service within 30 days and every 12 months thereafter.
This is terrifying to whom? It's racial profiling, because? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't get the objection. We've been attacked; thousands of Americans have died; we know that the attackers entered and lived in our country without sufficient scrutiny; we know that they came from Arab countries.
Soooooooooo, we should fingerprint and photograph menopausal white women from Tallahassee?
"Profiling" has become the hysteria du jour. It's so easy to declare, the response so immediate and predictable. It's like shouting "water moccasin!" during an Everglades walking tour. Everybody screams, fear fills the vacuum where sense presided just a moment before, and nobody pays much attention when the guide says, "Not to worry, it's just a harmless garter snake."
Who cares? It was a snake. We hate them, we fear them, we react.
So it goes with profiling. We hate it, we fear it, we react. When someone screams profiling, we become apoplectic. And we hardly pay attention when someone explains (that would be me) that "profiling" really means something else entirely.
Profiling is pulling African-Americans off I-95 for driving while black and for no other reason. The kind of profiling most people object to violates someone's civil rights because it singles them out on the basis of some identifying personal attribute or characteristic, such as race, religion, gender. Ashcroft proposes nothing of the sort.
Rather, he proposes identifying, photographing and fingerprinting foreign visitors because of their nationality, an altogether different animal. Eugene Volokh, who teaches law at UCLA, explains it this way on his Internet "blog" site (http://volokh.blogspot.com):
"Discrimination based on the foreign country in which one is a citizen stands on very different legal and ethical footing. Legally, I don't believe there's any constitutional bar to such discrimination. And ethically, we have to recognize that the nation of one's citizenship can quite properly be counted in our government's decisions, especially ones related to immigration and national security."
Moreover, as Volokh points out, visitors are just that. They're not American citizens; they're not ipso facto entitled to our constitutional protections; they're our guests. As hosts, we have a legitimate right -and at this juncture a moral duty -to pay attention to what they're doing while wandering around our streets. We'll be courteous, as we are wont to be, but we needn't be stupid.
To assert, as the Arab-American Institute has, that such logical vigilance is tantamount to life-shattering, unconstitutional discrimination is calling a garter snake a water moccasin. You might scare a few people, but you'd still be wrong.