Why Profiling Won't Work

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By William Raspberry
Monday, August 22, 2005

The Transportation Security Administration, having rendered cockpit crews less vulnerable to hijackers by strengthening the cockpit doors, is now (1) reviewing its list of items passengers may not bring aboard, (2) proposing to minimize the number of passengers who have to be patted down at checkpoints and (3) taking another look at the rule that requires most passengers to remove their shoes.

These are encouraging moves toward common sense.

This isn't: A gaggle of voices is proposing -- almost as though responding to the same memo from some malign Mr. Big -- that the TSA replace its present policy of random searches with massive racial and ethnic profiling.

After all, they argue, weren't the Sept. 11 terrorists all young Muslim men? Isn't it likely that the next terrorist attack will be carried out by young Muslim men? So why waste time screening white-haired grandmothers and blue-suited white guys? Much more efficient to tap the shoulder of any young man who looks Muslim -- a category that covers not just Arabs but also Asians, Africans and, increasingly, African Americans.

It must have been just such sweet reason that led to the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Even Andrew C. McCarthy of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies -- and one of the advocates of profiling -- acknowledges that the Japanese internments were excessive. But only, he says in the current issue of National Review, because "they included American citizens of Japanese descent; there was nothing objectionable in principle about holding Japanese, German, or Italian nationals."

That distinction doesn't hold up in the case of airport profiling, since there's no way visually to distinguish between a Saudi citizen and an Arab American. The profilers wouldn't even try.

Actually, anyone who's ever been inconvenienced by security checks -- whether as trivial as having to give up a fingernail clipper or as serious as having to take a later flight -- will see some merit in the case for profiling. Can't they see that I'm just a guy trying to get from here to there, while that fellow over there looks like he could be a hijacker?

One trouble with that line is that the obviously innocent tend to look a lot like ourselves, while the clearly suspect tend to look like the other fellow. Which is why so many Middle Eastern-looking men (and Sikhs) were stopped and frisked in the days just after Sept. 11 -- and why at least one member of President Bush's Secret Service detail was thrown off an airliner.

The other, more serious problem is that the pro-profilers are fighting the last war. If someone had stopped 19 young Muslim men from boarding four jetliners four years ago, Sept. 11 wouldn't have happened. Therefore, security requires that we make it difficult for young Muslim men to board jetliners. It's as though white people come in all sizes, ages and predispositions, while young Arab men are fungible.

Random checks at least have the virtue of rendering us all equal. I can talk with any fellow passenger about the absurdity of having to remove my loafers, because that fellow passenger has been similarly inconvenienced. But with whom does a young Arab (or Turk or dreadlocked college student) share his humiliation?

And make no mistake, it is humiliating. Stop me once because someone fitting my description or driving a car like mine is a suspect in a crime and I shrug and comply. Stop me repeatedly because of how I look and I respond with less and less grace.

Am I arguing against all efforts to protect America from terrorism? Of course not. But since Americans look all sorts of ways, a more sensible way of deciding who gets extra attention is behavior.

The profilers say this is just political correctness gone mad. McCarthy puts it bluntly: "Until we stop pretending not to see what the terrorists who are attacking us look like, we may as well give them an engraved invitation to strike again."

Well, we do know what they look like. They look like the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, but they also look like Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla and -- don't forget -- Timothy McVeigh.

Profile that.

willrasp@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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