- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Since the London terrorist bombings in July, a debate has been rekindled about the need for “common-sense profiling.” I hope this is still possible.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, profiling ran amok in several highly publicized incidents. For example, news media and civil libertarians reported cases of pilots or passengers refusing to fly with people they thought looked like possible terrorists simply because of dark complexions and features.

The debate returned after the recent bombings in London, particularly in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city police announced random searches of bags and packages carried by subway passengers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the city, arguing random searches without cause are unlawful, unconstitutional, open the door to racial profiling of Middle Easterners and Arabs and do little to stop determined terrorists.

The phrase “without cause” is important. Before you stop somebody for any reason under our constitutional system of laws, you almost always need what lawyers call “probable cause.” You need a better reason than mere skin color or religious attire to stop or otherwise detain someone for search or questioning. You need, at least, to observe some sort of odd behavior or a suspicious-looking package.

Random searches insulate against being overruled in courts. But does it offer much protection? Does anyone really feel safer with random searches? Yet, as Mr. Bloomberg said in rejecting ethnic profiling, “You can’t predict what a terrorist looks like.”

Here’s my uncommon idea of common sense: Profiling is a fact of life. But there’s smart profiling, and there’s stupid profiling.

Stupid profiling is based on race or ethnicity alone. Public defenders have offered examples of cases they easily got thrown out of court simply because the arresting officers didn’t realize that seeing “two male Negroes sitting in a car” was not probable cause to stop and search the two male Negroes.

Besides, whatever profile you develop for how a terrorist looks, you should expect them to find ways around it. We should not expect terrorists to be morons because, for example, Richard Reid showed glaring ineptitude at lighting his shoe-bombs.

The long, sad experience of terrorism in Israel, among other countries, shows that dedicated insurgencies will recruit women and children to plant bombs or carry weapons, if that’s what it takes for them to slip past profilers’ preconceived notions.

Robert S. Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center, reports that Islamist terrorist groups already have sought to recruit non-Arab Europeans, including women, to fool profilers.

If it will stop terrorists, most of us, regardless of ethnicity or religion, would put up with profiling. Nobody wants to get blown up, regardless of race, creed or color. But the mere fact more Americans have been killed over the last decade or so by terrorists who look like Mohamed Atta than by those who look like Timothy McVeigh doesn’t mean there are not more McVeigh-types waiting, too.

It is not practical to run all of the bus and train passengers in our cities through metal detectors or bomb sniffers. At best, police have mere seconds to make a judgment call that can save or take lives. The wrong call can lead to terrorists taking a life or police taking an innocent life, like the Brazilian electrician fatally shot by London police because he apparently did not understand their orders to halt.

The quest for sensible profiling is joined by politicians like New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikin, a Brooklyn Democrat, who would allow racial profiling for bag searches, against Mr. Bloomberg’s wishes. New York City Councilman James Oddo, a Republican, has urged a similar resolution. Neither measure has much chance to pass, but both raise the sort of questions that are needed at the beginning of a serious debate.

We should learn from Israel and other countries’ hard-fought experience how to look beyond mere ethnicity to stop terrorists in their tracks. But we also need to learn to work with Arabs and Muslim communities on beating terrorism. Otherwise, we encourage the ethnic divisions that give terrorists precisely what they want. That would defy common sense.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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