The failed attempt on Christmas Day to blow up a Northwest
Airlines plane has some people calling for racial profiling. In fact, a recent
USA Today/Gallup poll shows that an alarming majority of Americans support
ethnic profiling. However, I contend that this is a misguided reaction that can
actually be counterproductive. And the attempted Christmas bombing is no excuse
First of all, what kind of profile are we supposed to be
concerned about? After 9/11, people looked suspiciously at
Middle-Eastern-looking individuals. But the would-be Christmas bomber was a
black man from Nigeria.
He and many other high-profile terror suspects have fallen short of the Middle-Eastern
profile, as Bruce Schneier recently pointed out in a New York Times blog post:
�Terrorists don�t fit a profile and
cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. They�re European, Asian, African,
Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Umar Farouk Abdul
Mutallab was Nigerian. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a
Jamaican father. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was
Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002
Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was
the Unabomber. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004
were female. Palestinian terrorists routinely recruit �clean� suicide bombers,
and have used unsuspecting Westerners as bomb carriers.
�Without an accurate profile, the system can be statistically demonstrated to
be no more effective than random screening.�
In fact, racial profiling can make us less safe. Multiple
studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to
pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that
can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all
persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.
Furthermore, a 2004 report by Amnesty International provides
overwhelming evidence that racial profiling is not only ineffective and
counterproductive in finding the real criminals, but that it also encourages
hate and undermines national unity. The report was based on six public hearings
nationwide and more than a year of intensive research.
My dear friend Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani American whose
police cadet son died while attempting to save lives at the World Trade
Center on 9/11, sums up
the issue this way: �Profiling generates anger and mistrust, the leading causes
Yes, anger and mistrust lead to violence, which leads to
anger and mistrust, which lead to more violence. And so on.
Therefore, just as racial profiling has failed in the �war
on drugs,� it is likewise doomed to fail in the �war on terror.� We will be
much better protected if law enforcement and security personnel focus more on
what people are doing, and not on what they look like or whether they worship
in a church or a mosque.
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and
activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a
former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights
group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of
newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the
author�s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty
International or any other organization with which she may be associated.