- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Like most people nowadays, I find myself at airports all too often, fighting crowds, delays, rude staff, parking and bad food. But as someone of Middle Eastern descent, I routinely receive "special treatment" at the airport.

When checking in, airline personnel question me more thoroughly than my Irish-looking wife. When I go through security, my bags are usually chosen for scanning by the new bomb sniffing equipment. While I cannot prove it, it is pretty clear that I am routinely racially profiled at the airport.

So when presidential candidate George W. Bush denounced the concept of racial profiling during the second debate, and the vice president chimed in with his own "me too" denunciation, I sat up and took notice.

Given the media's portrayal of the two parties the GOP as the party of angry white men and Democrats as the party of women and minorities the Texas governor's raising of racial profiling on his own accord caught some off guard. No one questioned the Democrat's track record on racial profiling. But let's set the record straight.

The concept of singling out people based on their ethnicity, race or religion has been around as long as discrimination has existed. However, in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 crash in 1996, racial profiling gained a new supporter: the vice president of the United States.

After Flight 800 went down, President Clinton created the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security to address in-flight terrorism, among other issues. Mr. Gore chaired this commission.

The "Gore Commission" announced its findings in a 70-page report in 1997. As one solution to terrorism, the Gore Commission recommended on page 29 that "passengers could be separated into a very large majority who present little or no risk, and a small minority who merit additional attention."

On page 30, the Gore Commission lauded and supported the "development and implementation of automated and manual profiling systems" by Northwest Airlines. (The Northwest profiling system is now the subject of civil rights litigation in Detroit.)

The initial guidelines implemented as a result of the Gore Commission provided for stops and searches of all individuals traveling to "suspect" destinations. Unfortunately, almost all of these suspect destinations turned out to be Arab or Islamic countries. More important, however, Arab-Americans and Muslims were being stopped on domestic flights as well demonstrating that this was less about terrorism and more about racial stereotypes and discrimination. Today, people of Middle Eastern heritage are still being stopped, searched and harassed by airline security agents, merely because they have an Arabic-sounding name.

Aside from the fact that the Gore Commission itself was a knee-jerk response to the (false) assumption that TWA Flight 800 was a terrorist act, its conclusion that people who look different should be treated differently is an assault on us all. But those who should find it particularly disconcerting are people of Arab-American descent or of Muslim faith. They are the ones who are targeted as potential terrorists, merely because they wear different clothes or have a strange accent. And they are the ones who will pay a price for Mr. Gore's willingness to permit racial profiling.

When the vice president concurred with Mr. Bush on the need to end racial profiling, he was backtracking after all, the Gore Commission authorized racial profiling a scant three years earlier. To those looking at Mr. Gore's statement on profiling during the debate, it appears as though he merely embellished the truth or inadvertently forgot the past. But upon closer inspection, one has to realize that his response was a calculated political ploy.

There are more than 7 million people with Middle Eastern roots or of Islamic faith in America. In the last election, 90 percent of those who were eligible to vote turned out. (In contrast, there are approximately 6 million Jewish Americans, of which 96 percent voted in the last presidential election.) Equally important, the larger congregations of Arabs and Muslims are coincidentally in battleground states. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida all have sizable communities. In the past, Muslim and Arab voters in these states have trended Democratic. In the 2000 elections, however, their votes are up for grabs.

Racial profiling is consistently polled as the number one issue for Arab-Americans and Muslims in the United States. Opposition to the practice has almost become a litmus test for Muslim and Arab support. So for Mr. Gore to be identified as the father of racial profiling in airports would be an unmitigated disaster. That is why Mr. Gore had to run from his own record and embrace Mr. Bush's comments as his own during the second debate.

When Mr. Gore agreed with Mr. Bush that racial profiling has to stop, he took the right position. Unfortunately, what he says now does not match up with what he did three years ago. We now know that Mr. Gore was not the father of the Internet; he was, however, a parent of racial profiling despite his statements to the contrary.

David Safavian, an attorney of Iranian descent, is a member of the board of directors of the Islamic Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.

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