Profiling Will Never Work

The Christmas bomb attempt has spurred fresh calls for religious, national and racial profiling. Peter Beinart on the mass murderers who’d get through those nets.

Remember when conservatives believed in color blindness? Before 9/11, when affirmative action was a hot topic; they were positively weepy on the subject. Discrimination based on skin color is just plain wrong, they used to declare, no matter whom it benefits. Martin Luther King was invoked. It was a matter of high principle. Conservatives had a dream.

That was then. Now, when it comes to terrorism, color blindness is the problem. With Pavlovian predictability, right wing pundits greet terror scares with the chant: Profile the swarthy! Stop treating people of all races alike! Don’t let political correctness (once known as the high principle of color blindness) put us all at risk.

Religious profiling, in reality, is often racial profiling. And racial profiling is not only ugly, but counterproductive.

Actually, it’s a bit more subtle than that. Conservatives don’t call for racial profiling; they call for religious profiling. Strip-search the Muslims! After all, as my Daily Beast colleague Tunku Varadarajan recently put it, “incidents of terrorism by non-Muslims are trivial these days.”

Gallery: Ranking the Terror Hubs Leslie H. Gelb: Only Muslims Can Stop Terror Really? The biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history prior to 9/11—the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing—was carried out by a white ex-Marine with a crew cut. The only major WMD attack of the “war on terror” era—the 2001 anthrax mailings—was apparently the handiwork of a white, Christian microbiologist angry that prominent Catholic politicians were pro-choice. And who stormed the Holocaust Museum last year, killing a security guard? Ayman-al Zawahiri? No, neo-Nazi octogenarian nutcase James Wenneker von Brunn.

Not all terrorism is jihadist Muslim terrorism. And for that matter, not all mass murder is terrorism. When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, it wasn’t terrorism, since he didn’t have a political motive. But the Homeland Security Department has to stop that kind of stuff from happening on airplanes nonetheless. And frisking people named Ahmed won’t do the trick.

So even religious profiling has its problems. But religious profiling is also a backdoor to racial profiling. The reason is that people don’t wear their religions on their foreheads, or even on their passports. Yes, you can give special scrutiny to travelers from certain overwhelmingly Muslim countries, something the U.S. has done in various forms since 9/11. But last time I checked, Britain, Canada, France and Germany—all of which have produced terrorists trying to reach U.S. soil in recent years—weren’t on the special scrutiny list. Nor was India, the country with the third-largest Muslim population in the world. Screening for nationality, in other words, is not the same as screening for religion.

So what are conservatives really demanding when they demand that airport officials profile Muslims? Whether they recognize it or not, what they’re demanding, in practice, is that screeners profile people who look like Muslims. The normally sensible Stuart Taylor put it bluntly. Screeners should look for “Islamic-world origin, as evidenced by speech patterns, facial characteristics [and] skin color.”

OK, go look for it. You’d likely miss Shoe bomber Richard Reid (British citizen of Afro-Caribbean descent), London subway bomber Germaine Lindsay (ditto), alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla (Puerto Rican), Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (African-American), Taliban fighters John Walker Lindh and David Hicks and Al Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn (white, white and white).

You’d also get some problematic false positives. In 2005, when the British Police went on a profiling spree after the London subway bombing, they ended up shooting a Brazilian electrician named Jean Charles de Menezes who they mistook for one of the bombers because, according to one officer, he had “Mongolian eyes.”

Religious profiling, in reality, is often racial profiling. And racial profiling is not only ugly, but counterproductive. The reasons are simple. Airport officials have finite resources. The more they concentrate those resources on a profiled subset of the population, the less scrutiny everyone else gets. And the less scrutiny everyone else gets, the greater al Qaeda’s incentive to recruit terrorists who fall into that less-scrutinized category. Profile people who “look Muslim” and they’ll sign up Jose Padilla or David Hicks. Profile men and they’ll hire women. (Women have already committed suicide attacks in Russia and Israel). Profile people who “dress Muslim” and they’ll dress up as Orthodox Jews. (It’s happened in Israel). It’s not that hard to move from Category A to Category B.

Profiling is also counterproductive because the best way to catch terrorists is by gathering intelligence about specific plots. And the people who are best-placed to give you that intelligence are the very people you’re likely to profile, and thus potentially alienate. Imagine if officials had singled out Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father for unfriendly attention on his way through some U.S. airport? Would he have been as likely to report his son to the CIA? Would the Yemeni-American outside of Buffalo who in 2002 sent the FBI the letter that led to the busting of the al Qaeda cell in Lackawanna have done so if he had been given the once over? After the profiling frenzy that followed the 2005 London subway attack, London police admitted that their efforts had had a “hugely negative impact” on their relationship with British Muslims, whose help they desperately needed.

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There’s nothing wrong with paying more attention to people who have recently traveled to terrorist hotspots (something the feds have always done). But the harsh truth is that if you want more security at airports you have to get tougher on everybody. Longer, testier interrogations by better-trained personnel. Higher-tech screening equipment. More opening of bags. More intrusion. More schlep. And that’s exactly what the profiling-demanding conservatives hate. They’re sure they can have more security and more privacy, if only the feds would violate the privacy of others instead. At root, they simply don’t believe that people who look and pray like them could ever be terrorists. But they’re wrong. People who look and pray like them are terrorists. And we have to stop them, too.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.