The term criminal profiling progresses to racial profiling when the defining characteristics used comprises ethnicity, religion or race. Law enforcement officials often utilize offender profiles, which is described as a series of behavioral and personal characteristics related with specific offenses, to make predictions regarding the type of person that may commit future crimes. Some contend that this tactic is a necessary tool that must be employed to protect the public especially now in this age of widespread global terrorism. However, many view profiling as a violation of civil liberties. Those of Arab decent are singled out as potential terrorists, detained and harassed more so than others. This is unacceptable in a country that champions civil rights.
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“Flying While Arab” Replaces “Driving While Black”
Prior to the attacks of September 11, when most people heard the term ‘racial profiling’ the first image that came to mind was the practice of police officers stopping and harassing young, black drivers by a much higher percentage than they did other drivers. African-Americans of all ages rightly complained that they were being disproportionately detained and asked non-pertinent questions by the police. The practice is commonly referred to as ‘driving while black.’ This is a procedure used by police because statistics have shown that African Americans, especially young males, are more likely than are whites to be involved in the commission of a crime. Racial profiling is illegal but police are allowed to stop and search drivers if they have reason to believe that person may be in possession of drugs or weapons so therefore, this practice continues. Since September 11, law enforcement agencies around the country are practicing a new type of racial profiling which has the approval of most all citizens. It is referred to as ‘flying while Arab.’ “In the post-September 11 climate, ‘driving while black’ has become ‘flying while brown…” (Leadership Conferences, 2002: 204). Many cases have been reported where Arab, or ‘Arab looking’ Americans have been ordered to depart airplanes simply because their appearance was making some of the other passengers uneasy. 9-11 left an ineradicable mental image in the minds of people worldwide and changed many aspects of life in America not the least of which is the moral, ethical and legal debate regarding the concept of profiling based on a person’s race or country of origin. The government and various agencies such as the transportation industry, as a response to possible future terrorist attacks, has led an anti-terrorism campaign focused on identifying people of Arab descent extending even to people of the Muslim faith and those who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin.
Racial profiling is a Reasonable Response to Terrorism
Immediately following and as a rational response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., President George W. Bush stated the county’s intent to initiate a ‘War on Terrorism’ which he characterized as a prolonged battle against those that would employ terrorist actions along with the nations that enabled them. In addition, the U.S. Congress gave formal authorization to the President on September 18, 2001 to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons” (U.S. Code 2002). During his State of the Union Address on September 20, 2001, Bush presented his position to the American people and the assembled body of Congress. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” (White House, 2001). The President’s main responsibility is to protect the nation and Bush is simply doing his job.
Since the World War II era and especially following the Cold War years, American citizens have grown accustomed to living their life free of threats from abroad. However, that national feeling of security was obliterated along with the twin towers in New York. Because of this, security officials at the airport can rationalize the profiling of passengers. Statistically speaking, a male boarding a plane that appears to be of Arab descent has, however infinitesimally, a higher probability of being a terrorist. Airport security is based on very minute statistical probabilities. Since the objective of airport security is to prevent terrorists from boarding planes, it is understandable that, at least since 9/11, they have a greater interest in persons who appear of Arab descent than those of other ethnic groups. It’s not considered racism but still is not morally or legally justifiable. It can be argued that the generalization of persons based on stereotypical characteristics is sometimes necessary and can be rationalized based on statistics. For example, if an explosive device has been reported being carried by a person on a plane full of passengers, when security officials board the plane looking for this person, they do not have time to consider the morality implications of stereotyping and generalizations.
(Leadership Conference, 2002: 202).
The Ends Do Not Justify the Means
The term ‘War on Terror’ has been continually invoked to justify breaches of the Constitution as well as the basic civil liberties of citizens and foreigners alike. The invocation of this phrase has repeatedly prohibited rational discussions regarding civil injustices such as profiling individuals based on their race. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that “one cannot condemn racial profiling because to do so will hinder the war on terrorism and undermine national security” (McDonald, 2001). The popularly stated position is that racial profiling is necessary because without using this tool of law enforcement would compromise the effort against terrorism thus sacrificing national security. This argument is fundamentally flawed because it erroneously presupposes that racial profiling is an essential element of this emotion-evoking endeavor. However, the reverse is accurate. Profiling, as a tactic employed by law enforcement, redirects important assets, estranges and enrages prospective allies and, most importantly, is contradictory with the uniquely American concept of equality and freedom. Undoubtedly, if profiling in the name of terrorism has not been proved effective, the profiling of black citizens in the name of ‘getting tough on crime’ is not effective as well and causes more harm, ultimately, than whatever good may come of it. “Racial profiling in any manifestation is a flawed law enforcement tactic that is in direct conflict with constitutional values” (McDonald, 2001).
It is important at this point to note that feelings of mistrust and suspicion aimed at Arabs or Muslims as well as blacks or Hispanics with regard to racial profiling by law enforcement officials is infrequently motivated because of blatant racism. Instead, the motivation stems from the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the fear of future terrorist actions, a widespread phobia which have been fueled by a federal government so as to further its own agenda.
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Profiling is Ineffective
There is no conclusive evidence that proves either way if the profiling of suspected terrorists who includes the factor of ethnicity or race is effective in safeguarding U.S. citizens. What is known is that the majority of U.S. residents, legal or not, of every racial group is not involved in terrorist activities and was alarmed by the September 11 attacks. Consequently, harassing, detaining or intruding on the liberty and privacy of individuals who are of a certain ethnic group will undoubtedly cause a certain amount of personal detriment to countless numbers of people who haven’t caused any reason to justify such an intrusion. The reality of the situation will not totally convince those persons who argue that profiling is effective and helps keep the public safe. Unlike illegal drug trafficking which involves large numbers of U.S. citizens of all ethnicities, there is every reason to assume that very few people in the U.S. are not engaged in terrorist activities or are planning attacks. Hence, “any criteria police use to identify or ‘profile’ terrorists, whether or not those criteria rely on suspect classifications such as race, ethnicity, or national origin, will yield many more false positives than they will disclose true conspiring murderers” (Colb, 2001). Simply put, the overwhelming majority of ‘suspected terrorists,’ as determined by the parameters set by the standards of racial profiling, are innocent, law-abiding citizens by whatever the criteria used.
By Whatever Justification …..
Decisions regarding what person to hire, which people will be admitted and who will be detained by airport security as their suitcase is ransacked while they are trying to catch a plane is based upon characteristic generalities that are either observable or perceived. However, even when generalizations are statistically legitimate, they can be very erroneous in particular cases. Racial profiling is, by anyone’s definition, a rational method of discrimination. While most would have agreed prior to September 11 that racial discrimination is morally wrong and cannot be justified for any reason, those following the tragic events which killed more than 3000 Americans and the continued threat of terrorism has made this practice more palatable and even desirable. Had the terrorists that committed these acts not been of Arab descent, then the profiling of airplane passengers and the widespread fear of this particular ethnic group would not be a matter of discussion.
……Profiling is Immoral
Profiling Arabs is an easy sell to a country made up principally of non-Arabs. Following the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, there was no public outcry to profile white men. Virtually all persons of Arab descent who are detained at airports, kicked-off airplanes, have their bags searched or are looked at with suspicion almost everywhere they go are not terrorists. Discrimination, no matter how it can be rationalized, causes the victimization of certain minority groups. It leads to malicious stereotyping and generalizations regarding race, religion, gender, etc. which civil liberty loving Americans have decided is morally reprehensible. It does not matter if these generalizations are well-founded or if by not acting upon them results in a public safety concern. “The U.S. Code states clearly, ‘An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry,’ said Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, himself a victim of Japanese internment during World War II” (Leadership Conference, 2002: 204).
Whatever the people of the U.S. decide on the question of racial profiling even during these fearful times of uncertainty and terror, generations that are yet to come may judge what we do now as reprehensible mimicking what those of us now think of past generations of Americans that thought it proper to imprison innocent Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the Second World War (Colb, 2001). Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, ‘those that sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.’ Perhaps Americans of all ethnicities should endeavor to exercise the moral responsibility that paves the way for the rights and freedoms we enjoy. Civil rights should be extended equally to all and not merely to certain groups at certain times.
Colb, Sherry F. (2001). “The New Face of Racial Profiling: How Terrorism Affects the Debate.” Find Law. Web.
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund. (2002). Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before & After September 11, 2001. Web.
MacDonald, Heather. (2001). “The War on the Police … and How it Harms the War on Terrorism.” Supra. Vol. 7, I. 16. Web.
U.S. Code Collection. “Title 50 Chapter 33 § 1541: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution 2002.” (2002). Cornell Law School. Web.
(The) White House. “President Issues Military Order Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism.” (2001). White House Press Release: Office of the Press Secretary. Web.