»  National Review

October 15th, 2001

  At First Glance


Whether you think the present emergency rises to the level of a war or not, one thing that is fast becoming clear is that Americans at large are much more tolerant of racial profiling than they were before the terrorists struck. This fact was illustrated on September 20th, when four men "of Middle Eastern appearance" were removed from a Northwest Airlines flight because other passengers refused to fly with them. A Northwest spokesman explained that under FAA rules, "the airline has no choice but to re-accommodate a passenger or passengers if their actions or presence make a majority of passengers uncomfortable and threaten to disrupt normal operations of flight."

Compare this incident with the experience of movie actor James Woods. Woods took a flight from Boston to Los Angeles one week before the World Trade Center attacks. The only other people in first class with him were four men "of Middle Eastern appearance" who acted very strangely. During the entire cross-country flight none of them had anything to eat or drink, nor did they read or sleep. They only sat upright in their seats, occasionally conversing with each other in low tones. Woods mentioned what he had noticed to a flight attendant, "who shrugged it off." Arriving in Los Angeles, Woods told airport authorities, but they "seemed unwilling to become involved."

You can see the great change in our attitudes by imagining the consequences if the first incident had happened two weeks earlier, or the second two weeks later. The first would then have generated a nationwide storm of indignation about racial profiling, and stupendous lawsuits; the second, a huge police manhunt for the four men concerned. It seems very likely that Woods witnessed a dry run for the attack on the World Trade Center. One of the planes used in that attack was flying the same Boston-Los Angeles route that Woods flew. If the authorities had acted on his report — if, that is to say, they had been willing to entertain a little straightforward racial profiling — six thousand lives might have been saved.

Civil libertarians are now warning us that in the current climate of crisis and national peril, our ancient liberties might be sacrificed to the general desire for greater security. They have a point. If truth is the first casualty in war, liberty is often the second. The reason that practically nobody can afford to live in Manhattan who isn't already living there is rent control, a WW2 measure, never repealed, that removed a landlord's freedom to let his property at whatever rent the market would bear. The moral to be drawn from that instance, though, is only that, as Bruce Ackerman has recently argued, emergency legislation must never be enacted without a clear "sunset provision" — i.e. that after some fixed period (Prof. Ackerman suggests two years), the law will lapse. And the civil-liberties crowd do not, in any case, have a very dazzling record on the liberties involved in entering into private commercial transactions. What happened to a cab driver's liberty to use his own judgment about who he picks up? Gone, swept away in the racial profiling panic of the 1990s.

It is in the matter of proactive law enforcement — the kinds of things that police agencies do to prevent crime or terrorism — that our liberties are most at risk in tense times. Who do you wiretap? Who does airport security take in for questioning? This is where racial profiling kicks in, with all its ambiguities. Just take a careful look, for example at that phrase: "of Middle Eastern appearance," which I imagine security agencies are already abbreviating to OMEA. The last time I wrote about this subject ("The Case for Racial Profiling," NR 2/19/01), I concentrated on the topics that were in the air at that time: the disproportionate attention police officers give to black and Hispanic persons as crime suspects, and the targeting of Wen Ho Lee in the nuclear-espionage case at the Los Alamos weapons labs. I had nothing to say about terrorists from the Middle East, or people who might be thought to look like them. OMEA was not, at that point, an issue.

Now it is, and the problem is that OMEA is a much more dubious description than "black" or even perhaps "Hispanic." You can see the difficulties by scanning the photographs of September 11th hijackers published in our newspapers. A few are unmistakeably OMEA. My reaction on seeing the photograph of the first to be identified, Mohammed Atta, was that he looked exactly like my own mental conception of an Arab terrorist. On the other hand, one of his companions on flight AA11, Wail al-Shehri, is the spitting image of a boy I went to school with — a boy of entirely English origins, whose name was Hobson. Ahmed al-Nami (flight UA93) looks like a Welsh punk rocker. A couple of the others — Ziad Jarrahi of flight UA93, for example, whose personal trainer down in Dania, Fla., described him as "the nicest guy in the world" — look "Jewish" (oh, you know what I mean). This is not very surprising, as Jews and Arabs speak related languages, and so presumably arose from some common stock.

Other visual markers offer similar opportunities for confusion. This fellow with a beard and a turban, coming down the road — he must surely be an Arab, or at least a Muslim. Well, perhaps, but he is much more likely to be a Sikh — belonging, that is, to a religion that owes more to Hinduism than to Islam, practiced by non-Arab peoples who speak Indo-European languages, and with scriptures written in the Devanagari alphabet of Hindi, not Arabic script. Sikhism requires male adherents to keep an untrimmed beard and wear a turban; Islam does not.

Most other attempts at a "Middle Eastern" typology fail a lot of the time, too. Middle Easterners in the U.S. are mainly Arabs, right? That depends on where you live. In the state of California, better than half are Iranian or Afghan; in Maryland, practically all are Iranian. Even if you restrict your attention to Americans of Arab origin, stereotypes quickly collapse. You would think it could at least be said with safety that they are mainly Muslims. Not so: more than three-quarters of Arab-Americans are Christians! (As are all six Arab-American members of Congress.) The principal Middle Eastern presence in my own town is St. Mark's Coptic church. The Copts, who are Egyptian Christians, are certainly OMEA — I have watched them dispersing after services — and speak Arabic for non-liturgical purposes, and have Arabic names. They have little reason to identify with Muslim terrorists, however, having been rudely persecuted by extremist Muslims in their homeland for decades. Misconceptions cut the other way, too. Care to guess what proportion of Muslim Americans are of Arab origins? Answer: around one in eight. Most American Muslims are black.

That we could impose any even half-way reasonable system of "racial profiling" on this chaos seems impossible. Yet we can, where it matters most, and I believe we should. In airport security, most obviously — which, as a matter of fact, is where OMEA profiling began, during the hijack scares of the early 1970s. When boarding a plane, documents need to be presented, names declared, words exchanged. This gives security officials a much richer supply of data than a mere "eyeball" check. We return here to one of the points in my previous article on this subject, as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court: that "race" — which is to say, visible physical characteristics typical of, or at least frequent amongst, some group with a common origin — can be used as part of a suspect profile to identify targets for further investigation, provided there are other criteria in play.

We should profile in these situations because, as the James Woods incident shows, profiling is an aid — very far from an infallible one, but still a useful one — to identifying those who want to harm us, just as it in is any other area of law enforcement. To pretend that any person passing through airport security is as likely as any other to be a hijacker is absurd, just as it is absurd to pretend that any driver on the New Jersey Turnpike is as likely as any other to be transporting narcotics.

Crises like this present one can generate hysteria, it is true, but they can also have a clarifying, reductionist effect on our outlook, sweeping away the wishful thinking of easier times, exposing the hollowness of relativism and moral equivalence, and forcing us to the main point. And peacetime has its own hysterias. I believe that when the long peace that ended on September 11th comes into perspective we shall see that the fuss about racial profiling was, ultimately, hysterical, driven by a dogmatic and unreasoned refusal to face up to group differences. So long as the authorities treat everyone with courtesy and apologize to the inconvenienced innocent, racial profiling is a practical and perfectly sensible tool for preventing crime and terrorism.