- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, answered by e-mail a list of questions from reporter Tom Carter on airport security, racial profiling and civil rights.

Question: Profiling, including racial profiling, is being used by security agents at airports in Europe to screen people to identify potential threats to passenger safety. Is there anything wrong with that? Does it violate any U.S. civil rights laws?
Answer: Racial profiling is a flawed law-enforcement tactic and a flawed tactic in the war on terrorism. It is inefficient, ineffective and violates core American values, including the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
President Bush has condemned all forms of racial profiling, both before and after September 11, and I commend him for that stance. Bipartisan legislation to ban racial profiling is pending in Congress and I urge its enactment.
While there is widespread agreement that the practice of racial profiling is unacceptable in routine law-enforcement activities, it is just as much an unsound tool to combat terrorism. Profiling rests on the erroneous assumption that any particular individual of one race or ethnicity is more likely to engage in misconduct than any particular individual of other races or ethnicities.
An anti-terror strategy based on that assumption would lead to an extremely inefficient use of resources because the overwhelming majority of Arab-Americans and Arab visitors to our country are law-abiding. Without information about individual behavior, any attempt to find the small handful of wrongdoers among the many millions of Arabs and Arab-Americans in the United States is as futile as the proverbial search for a needle in the haystack.
Profiling is a crude substitute for behavior-based enforcement and invites screeners to take a less vigilant approach to individuals who don't fit the profile, even if they engage in conduct that should cause concern. This is especially true of appearance-based profiles which may lead law enforcement officers to "rule out" individuals on first glance and not look more closely at suspicious conduct. Profiling creates a sense of security that could easily be proven false with tragic consequences.
Anti-Arab profiling breeds resentment among members of the public who might be particularly helpful in fighting terrorism. At a moment when the FBI is seeking to recruit Arab-American agents and Arabic translators, and while federal officials urge all Americans to report suspicious activity, the government can ill afford to antagonize members of the Arab-American community by presuming guilt on the basis of appearance or heritage.
Finally, racial profiling violates the most fundamental civil rights law: the U.S. Constitution. A government policy that discriminates against individuals on the basis of race must be narrowly tailored in furtherance of a compelling government interest. While there is no doubt that preventing terrorism is a compelling interest, reliance on inaccurate generalizations is not a narrowly tailored way to achieve that goal.
Q.: All of the men involved in the September 11 terrorism event were young Muslim males. Why shouldn't this group be targeted for extra scrutiny?
A.: It is true that all of the September 11 hijackers were young men from the Middle East. But alleged "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid is a British citizen of Jamaican ancestry, Charles Bishop [who fatally crashed a small plane into a Tampa, Fla., office building and left a note expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden] was a 15-year-old Florida schoolboy, and Taliban convert John Walker Lindh was raised in the Washington suburbs.
Meanwhile the bloodiest act of terrorism on U.S. soil prior to September 11 was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a former American soldier sporting a crewcut.
We simply can't afford to rely on stereotypes to mount a rigorous defense against terrorism. Race and national origin are worthless proxies for a hard look at suspicious behavior, and no substitute for an effective intelligence apparatus.
Q.: To make profiling more egalitarian, and therefore preserve U.S. civil rights, then presumably blue-haired Episcopalian women from Minnesota should be considered as big a threat as young Arab men recently immigrated from London, Beirut or Paris. Doesn't this defy logic?
A.: Our goal should not be to "make profiling more egalitarian." It should be to utilize sound and effective means to defend against terrorism. For the reasons I have described, racial profiling fails this test.
One important reason why every air traveler, even the hypothetical woman from Minnesota, must be subject to meaningful scrutiny is that anyone may be unwittingly used to transport a weapon or an explosive device onto a plane.
Q.: How can the United States fight terrorism and make the airlines secure without violating the Constitution or abridging civil rights?
A.: The government and the airlines are taking a number of sensible steps to improve airport security that pose no threat to civil rights. The use of improved technology to detect explosives, luggage-matching protocols, better training of screeners, and reinforcing cockpit doors are all prudent measures.
In addition, profiles based on actual behavior, such as the means or timing of ticket purchase, may play a useful role in a comprehensive anti-terror strategy.
Q.: It seems most people are willing to give up some time, money, convenience and even some civil liberty at the airport in order to feel safe. Does that put us on a downward spiral to "Big Brother?"
A.: All passengers are subject to more intense scrutiny before boarding airplanes these days. In light of the tragic events of September 11, that is how it should be.
In my view, airport security does not raise the specter of "Big Brother" because anyone boarding an airplane essentially consents to be searched as a condition of boarding. Some of the other surveillance measures adopted by the government since September 11 do raise serious privacy concerns, but airport screening is different.
World War II provides an important historical lesson about racial profiling. Soon after Pearl Harbor, thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans who had done nothing to arouse the suspicion of authorities were rounded up from their homes and businesses and placed in relocation camps throughout the western United States, solely because of their ancestry.
Over the course of the war, only 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan all of whom were Caucasian. Our most extensive national experiment with racial profiling in wartime did not work, yet it resulted in extraordinary personal hardship and remains a stain on our national honor.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide