Profiling Is `Flawed' Tool to Beat Terror

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Carter

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, answered by e-mail a list of questions from reporter Tom Carter on airport security, racial profiling and civil rights.

Question: Profiling, including racial profiling, is being used by security agents at airports in Europe to screen people to identify potential threats to passenger safety. Is there anything wrong with that? Does it violate any U.S. civil rights laws?

Answer: Racial profiling is a flawed law-enforcement tactic and a flawed tactic in the war on terrorism. It is inefficient, ineffective and violates core American values, including the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

President Bush has condemned all forms of racial profiling, both before and after September 11, and I commend him for that stance. Bipartisan legislation to ban racial profiling is pending in Congress and I urge its enactment.

While there is widespread agreement that the practice of racial profiling is unacceptable in routine law-enforcement activities, it is just as much an unsound tool to combat terrorism. Profiling rests on the erroneous assumption that any particular individual of one race or ethnicity is more likely to engage in misconduct than any particular individual of other races or ethnicities.

An anti-terror strategy based on that assumption would lead to an extremely inefficient use of resources because the overwhelming majority of Arab-Americans and Arab visitors to our country are law-abiding. Without information about individual behavior, any attempt to find the small handful of wrongdoers among the many millions of Arabs and Arab-Americans in the United States is as futile as the proverbial search for a needle in the haystack.

Profiling is a crude substitute for behavior-based enforcement and . . . invites screeners to take a less vigilant approach to individuals who don't fit the profile, even if they engage in conduct that should cause concern. This is especially true of appearance-based profiles which may lead law enforcement officers to "rule out" individuals on first glance and not look more closely at suspicious conduct. Profiling creates a sense of security that could easily be proven false - with tragic consequences.

Anti-Arab profiling breeds resentment among members of the public who might be particularly helpful in fighting terrorism. At a moment when the FBI is seeking to recruit Arab-American agents and Arabic translators, and while federal officials urge all Americans to report suspicious activity, the government can ill afford to antagonize members of the Arab-American community by presuming guilt on the basis of appearance or heritage.

Finally, racial profiling violates the most fundamental civil rights law: the U.S. Constitution. A government policy that discriminates against individuals on the basis of race must be narrowly tailored in furtherance of a compelling government interest. While there is no doubt that preventing terrorism is a compelling interest, reliance on inaccurate generalizations is not a narrowly tailored way to achieve that goal.

Q.: All of the men involved in the September 11 terrorism event were young Muslim males. Why shouldn't this group be targeted for extra scrutiny?

A.: It is true that all of the September 11 hijackers were young men from the Middle East. But alleged "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid is a British citizen of Jamaican ancestry, Charles Bishop [who fatally crashed a small plane into a Tampa, Fla. …