The men and women who shake us down at the airport are getting a crash course in Muslim culture. A training DVD that runs for 45 minutes tackles such "sensitive" questions as why Arabs often avoid looking someone in the eye. An agent of the Homeland Security Administration questioning a suspected terrorist, for example, may regard dropped eyes as evidence of suspicious behavior, suggesting the suspect is hiding something.
But now he must confront his own ignorance. He's told that Arab culture considers it impolite to stare. (So does ours, as any toddler is told, again and again.)
Such sensitivity may be polite, but it may blind the officer to his own intuition and the sum of his experience. It's entirely possible that the suspect has learned to stare a policeman down, just as the 9/11 terrorists learned to eat pizza and enjoy the scenery at strip joints. We've come a long way from the heroic mythmaking of "Tales of the Arabian Nights," of Scheherezade and Lawrence of Arabia, and that's no doubt good in its own way. Nevertheless, looking for insights through cultural relativism is exercising what President Bush might call "the soft bigotry of false expectations."
"The reason we prepared [the DVD] is because our front-line officers were asking for training on how to interact with people from the Arab and Muslim world," says Daniel Sutherland, the agency's officer for civil rights and civil liberties. He insists that the motivation for this sensitivity training is protecting the nation, not the feelings of terror suspects. A federal prosecutor says he learned through his investigations that interviewers elicit more information by making nice, such as calling him "sir" rather than showing antagonism, like "barking orders." This sounds like the familiar good cop, bad cop routine, except that there's no "bad" cop when we really need one.
Such superficial approaches may reap occasional rewards, but such approaches rely on stereotypes that brush experience aside and cloud good judgment. What we need is not a DVD but a better, deeper understanding of Islam without the politically correct lecture if we're really serious about containing jihad. "Our cultural relativism leads us to suppose that Islam is compatible with Western civilization, but the historical evidence is rather against that proposition," writes historian Daniel Johnson in The New Criterion. Mr. Johnson and other revisionist historians are re-evaluating what we thought about the role of the Islamic faith as dictated by Mohammed, who lived in a time when church and state were one.
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