In current context, racial profiling makes sense

Posted: Oct 26, 2001 12:00 AM
When the Justice Department released its revised list of "Most Wanted" criminals two weeks ago, all of the people on the list were Arabic. This mostly has to do with the fact, inconvenient to some, that all of the people directly responsible for murdering 6,000 Americans on Sept. 11 happened to be Arabic. Undaunted, Hussein Amin, a widely quoted Islamic intellectual and former Egyptian Ambassador to Algeria, responded, "Why pick on Arabs? Are there no South Americans, Irish, Serbs, Japanese among the most wanted?" He told the Reuters news agency, "This will increase the bitterness people here feel against the West." George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University, had similar complaints. Pointing to the pictures of the Arab criminals, Joffe noted, "All of the indicators, the simplifiers - the head dress, the beards, the appearance - all indicate a particular group, associated with a particular culture. All this goes against the attempts by the U.S. administration to de-demonize Islam." Alas, it's all true. It is terribly unfair we can't find an international terrorist organization that "looks like America," as they used to say in the Clinton Administration. But the sad truth is the people responsible all happen to be Middle Easterners. I guess we could throw a few Norwegians and maybe a Mormon high school soccer team on the list, but that hardly seems fair, does it? This sort of thinking isn't restricted to Egyptian and British "intellectuals." When Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights earlier this month, he bemoaned the fact that "virtually every secret evidence case that has come to public attention (since Sept 11) has involved a Muslim or an Arab, raising the specter of racial profiling." Well, of course! Should the FBI go out of its way to investigate Mexican-Americans just to round out the list? If it turned out that al-Qaida was comprised solely of men with huge, thumb-shaped ear lobes, we would be putting out a Most Wanted list of only thumb-lobed people. Look: All Middle Easterners aren't terrorists, but in this context, all the terrorists in question are from the Middle East. Taking that into account may in fact be racial profiling, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. Indeed, stripped of the simplistic black-and-white posturing of traditional civil rights arguments, racial profiling suddenly makes sense to a lot of people who opposed it just a month or so ago. In fact, a Gallup poll finds that 74 percent (54 percent in a Zogby poll) of African-Americans want Arab-looking travelers to get extra scrutiny at airports. A Detroit News poll found that 61 percent of Arab-Americans in the heavily Arab-American community of Detroit believe some extra attention to Middle Easterners is warranted. My favorite illustration of why racial profiling works was first offered by the author Daniel Seligman. He points out that if everyone knew that one slot machine at Bally's paid out 10 percent more often than any other, the line for that slot machine would be a lot longer than all the others - and not just 10 percent longer -because 10 percent is a very significant advantage. As a statistical fact, under specific circumstances, young black men tend to be involved in criminal activity, i.e. "pay out," more than young white men do. That's why police disproportionately concentrate on young black men, i.e. racially profile them. In a certain sense, as I've argued in this column in the past, the whole phenomenon of racial profiling is a numbers game. The only way you can prove the practice occurs is by pointing out that blacks are stopped in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the population as a whole. So, the quickest way to get rid of it would be if the police simply hassled more white men. Stop enough Caucasian men for "driving while white" and the number of blacks stopped unfairly is no longer "disproportionate." But this current situation is vastly different than figuring out if a young black man looks more suspicious than a comparable white guy. To date, in the search for would-be terrorists and their accomplices, there are no comparable white guys - or Asians, African-Americans, Mexicans or women of any ethnicity - who even qualify as suspects. (ital) Only (end ital) men of Muslim or Middle Eastern descent have been proven to be involved in the terrorist network responsible for Sept. 11. This doesn't mean that all such people should be harassed by law enforcement or by private citizens, or that truly suspicious blonde, blue-eyed people shouldn't be checked out. But you have to be a fool to willingly fish where there are no fish just because you want to be fair to everyone.