Avoiding racial profiling at all costs?
This editorial is from Tuesday's New York Times, but the attitude it expresses could have been found in almost any liberal newspaper.
Subsequent to the London subway bombings, New York has had to decide how to increase security on public transit, and so there have been random searches of backpacks and the like. The Times editorial explains:
The police officers must be careful not to give the impression that every rider who looks Arab or South Asian is automatically a subject of suspicion. They will naturally choose to search the bags of those people who appear suspicious, like those wearing bulky clothes in warm weather. But those who are selected simply because they are carrying packages should be chosen in a way that does not raise fears of racial profiling - by, for example, searching every 5th or 12th person, with the exact sequence chosen at random.
This need to avoid racial profiling at all costs, or even the appearance of racial profiling or fears of racial profiling, is puzzling. Yes, of course, it's true that not all terrorists and suicide bombers fit the profile of a young adult Arab Moslem male--there's Richard Reid, and the recent Somalian of the second group of London subway bombings. But there is no doubt that most do indeed fit that profile.
And of course no one is suggesting that all who do fit that profile are bombers; the vast majority are not. And yet it is folly, if not insanity, to deny that young adult Arab Moslem males are far more likely than anyone else to be suicide bombers, and that, in a more logical world, they should be subject to greater scrutiny.
In regular police work, usually a crime has already been committed when the police are doing a search. If there is also a witness who has given a description of the subject--let's say, for example, a young white male of medium height wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and having a huge scar on his forehead--the police are not going to search every fifth person driving through a roadblock. No, they are going to look for young white males fitting the description, or else we would consider our tax money poorly spent and our police hopelessly incompetent. But such a search is not considered racial profiling, because it is based on an actual description of an actual suspect by an actual witness to an actual crime.
Racial profiling is usually done in the context of stopping cars based on the race of the driver and searching them for drugs. Even if members of certain races are statistically somewhat more likely to be dealing drugs than others, it's not as though drug dealing and race are inextricably linked. There are no races or subsets of races, for example, that have as part of their ideology that members must deal drugs; the racial factors in drug dealing are statistical--social and perhaps economic, but hardly ideological in nature. And the need to prevent drug dealing cannot even remotely be compared to the need to prevent suicide bombings.
Which brings us to the other operative word, prevent. With backpack searches in mass transit, we are not looking to solve a crime by finding a criminal ex post facto. We are looking to prevent a crime that has the potential for mass murder. If this doesn't justify a bit of racial profiling that acknowledges what type of person is most likely to be a perpetrator, what would?
It's not that random searches have no place in the prevention of suicide bombings--they do. As terrorists turn more and more to those who don't fit the traditional profile (Somalis, as in London; women, as in Palestine/Israel), the random search becomes more and more valuable, especially as a possible deterrent. It's unlikely that the police would happen upon an actual bomber by chance in a random search, but the knowledge that such searches are occurring might act to keep any non-Arab bombers from feeling safe, and could perhaps discourage some of them from even trying an attack. So I would not be one to argue against random searches--they are one more weapon in an arsenal that needs to be varied.
But it's not an either/or proposition. There's no reason not to do the most reasonable thing: random searches plus racial (or, in this case, religious and even gender) profiling. It's the only thing that makes any sense.
But political correctness often trumps common sense nowadays. The NY Times doesn't seem to feel, in the quoted editorial, that there is even a need to explain why being careful to avoid any hint of racial profiling is more important than the need to protect people who ride public transit against a terrorist attack. The authors of the editiorial seem to think the reasons are self-evident. I, for one, would like to hear their argument, because those reasons are certainly not evident to me.
And yes, I understand the need to protect our civil rights. But we are not talking about throwing young Moslem males of Arab origin into detention camps like those that housed Japanese Americans during WWII. We are talking about subjecting them to greater scrutiny in backpack searches; not exactly the most terrible violation of a person's rights. I like to think that, if I were a young Moslem Arab male in the US who was not a terrorist, I would understand and freely cooperate with such a need on the part of law enforcement.