Everything isn't racial profiling

Posted: Jan 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Racial profiling is an ugly business -- and I have been on record opposing it for years. But I'm not opposed to allowing -- no, requiring -- airlines to pay closer attention to passengers that fit a terrorist profile, which includes national origin. The problem is distinguishing between what is permissible, indeed prudent, behavior and what is merely bigotry. As the Christmas day incident involving an Arab American Secret Service agent who was denied passage on an American Airlines makes clear, it's not always easy to tell the difference. Racial profiling entails picking someone out for special scrutiny simply because of his race. It happens when highway patrolmen pull over blacks who've committed no traffic violations for spot checks but ignore other drivers who share similar characteristics, say out-of-state plates or expensive cars. It happens when security guards at a mall tail black customers in stores or insist on inspecting only their bags, ignoring whites. The underlying presumption in these cases is that blacks are more likely to be involved in criminal acts because of the color of their skin. This kind of racial profiling is both morally wrong and ineffective. But there are times when it makes sense to include race or national origin in a larger, criminal profile, particularly if you're dealing with a crime that has already been committed or is ongoing and the participants all come from a single ethnic or racial group. It would make no sense if witnesses identified a six-feet-tall, blond male fleeing a homicide but police stopped females, short men, or blacks or Latinos for questioning. Likewise, if you stopped every tall, blond man, a lot of innocent people would be inconvenienced, if only temporarily. Which brings us to the case of the Arab American Secret Service agent. Walid Shater was allowed initially to board an American Airlines plane in Baltimore headed for Texas, carrying a loaded gun, but then was pulled off the plane, along with a handful of other passengers, for questioning. In the intervening 90 minutes, Shater's lawyers allege that he was mistreated and denied the right to fly because he was an Arab American, while the pilot claims that the agent became loud and abusive, leading him to keep Shater off the flight. I can fully sympathize with the agent's anger -- but I don't think the airline acted improperly. I've had encounters similar to Shater's, largely because of my appearance. When I used to travel frequently in Europe from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, I was routinely questioned more than other passengers, I suspect because I look vaguely Middle Eastern -- or as one airline agent put it, "Your passport's American, but you don't look American." On a trip from Israel in 1985, where I was an official government guest of the Israelis, security agents at Tel Aviv Airport questioned me for almost an hour. "But you can't keep me from leaving Israel," I protested. "No, but we can keep you from doing so on an airplane," the guard responded. They finally let me go when another passenger, who recognized me from the newspapers, vouched for me. On another flight, this time from Switzerland, I was asked to de-board the plane after the passengers were in their seats and questioned about items in my checked luggage. It was humiliating to be called off the plane and to have the passengers told the flight would be delayed because of concerns about one of the passenger's bags. But I didn't rush to file a discrimination complaint. I didn't like being singled out, but I understood why I was being subjected to more scrutiny. At the time I was hassled, Middle Eastern terrorism was very prevalent in Europe, and female terrorists were operating as well as men, usually on stolen or phony passports. It wasn't unreasonable for airlines to look at me a little more closely than other passengers given these facts. In Shater's case, 19 Arab terrorist killed more than 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, and several of the hijackers possessed stolen identification cards and pilots' uniforms. It wasn't unreasonable for the American Airlines pilot to be extra cautious with Shater under the circumstances, despite his official ID. As a law enforcement officer himself, Shater might have cut these guys a little more slack. Sure it's unpleasant to be a suspect when you're innocent. But it's worse to overlook terrorists because we ignored their pertinent characteristics. I sometimes felt annoyed when I was singled out, but I also felt safer because the airlines were doing their job.