Profiling gone bad

Posted: Oct 30, 2002 12:00 AM
From President Bush on down, it seems everyone is opposed to racial profiling -- that is, unless white men comprise the group of likely suspects. For the three weeks that two snipers terrorized the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around the nation's capital, we heard endless speculation by government officials, experts and media commentators that the killings were likely the handiwork of an angry white man -- or men. It's the same rhetoric we heard repeatedly in the as-yet-unsolved anthrax attacks that killed five people a year ago. By assuming they "knew" the race of these killers -- with absolutely no evidence to back up their suspicions -- law enforcement officials may have impeded their own investigations. That certainly appears to be the case with the sniper killings. Washington, D.C., police chief Charles Ramsey acknowledged that police paid little attention to alleged snipers John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, who on 10 separate occasions over the course of the killing spree crossed paths with authorities, according to the Washington Post. "We were looking for two white guys in a white van," Ramsey said in defense of various police jurisdictions' failure to connect the pair to the attacks. As it turned out, Muhammad and Malvo were two black men driving a blue Chevy Caprice. Imagine the outrage if the murders had been committed by two white men, but police had 10 times passed up the opportunity to apprehend them because a phony racial profile -- and nothing more -- told them to be on the lookout for a black man? There would have been cries of racism, justifiably so. I have consistently opposed racial profiling, not only because I think it's morally wrong, but because it leads to sloppy police work. In the absence of information from witnesses about the race of a perpetrator, it's not enough to know that similar crimes have been committed more often by members of one racial or ethnic group. But if police reliance on racial profiling helped lead them astray in tracking down the D.C.-area snipers, their reluctance to probe other important characteristics about the alleged snipers is equally troubling. Muhammad's race is clearly irrelevant to his alleged crime -- but his political and religious views may be very important in understanding his motives. Yet both government officials and most of the media are assiduously avoiding any discussion of Muhammad's conversion to Islam -- or, more accurately, the radical Black Muslim sect -- and his reported sympathy for al Qaeda, which are legitimate avenues of inquiry. If the snipers had turned out to be two white guys who were members of some extremist Christian sect and had voiced sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, you can bet we'd be watching endless investigative reports on the evening news about right-wing Christian and militia groups. In fact, after McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the media spent hundreds of hours dissecting the roots of the militia movement, and some newscasters speculated there might be thousands of would-be McVeighs just waiting for their chance to kill hundreds of innocents to make a political point. But the media are ignoring Muhammad's political and religious ties in order not to appear anti-Islam. The possibility that Muhammad may have been acting out some fantasy that he was a mujahideen killing infidels when he allegedly shot his victims doesn't seem to interest the major media in the slightest. The media have no such reservations when it comes to probing whether Muhammad's Gulf War experience may have been a factor in his alleged crimes, however. A Reuters news service reporter even asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld if the military "felt responsible for creating the alleged killer." Certainly soldiers are trained to kill, but American soldiers are not trained to kill civilians, much less their fellow Americans. Muhammad may have learned how to fire a rifle with precision from the U.S. Army, but he learned to hate elsewhere. We should be asking where.