San Francisco Chronicle – October 7, 2005
Racial profiling no tool in thwarting terrorism
By Mike German
Ever since Islamic extremists attacked the London mass-transit system this summer, calls have increasingly gone out for adding racial profiling to the U.S. arsenal of counterterrorism security measures. Proponents of racial profiling ridicule the New York Police Department's decision to conduct random bag searches in the subway as a politically correct waste of time, because Girl Scouts and grannies get subjected to searches while "everyone knows" that the terrorists who are trying to kill us are Muslim men. They suggest targeting Muslim men for extra scrutiny would be a more productive use of our counterterrorism resources.
But a quick look at population statistics shows that racial profiling will likely be just as unproductive as random searches. The tragic shooting of a Brazilian electrician who was mistaken for an Arab terrorist by British undercover policemen demonstrates the difficulty of identifying race by merely looking at someone. But even if police here in the United States could be trained to properly identify Arab Americans on sight, only about 1 in 4 would actually turn out to be Muslim. The vast majority -- 63 percent, according to a 2002 Zogby poll, are Christian. So much for the clash of civilizations.
If you wanted to stop Muslims here in America you'd have better luck targeting South Asians (such as Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshi and Afghans), who make up the largest percentage (33 percent) of the American Muslim population, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of State. Southeast Asians make up an additional 1.3 percent. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that by profiling Muslims, we can exempt all East Asians from suspicion, but I have a feeling most police officers would have as much trouble distinguishing East Asians from South Asians as they do Arabs from Brazilians.
Police would have to search African Americans at a higher rate as well. Blacks make up 30 percent of the Muslim-American community and Sub-Saharan Africans 3.4 percent, State Department figures show. By contrast, Arabs make up only 25 percent. So basically, if we decide to use racial profiling, the police will need to focus on Asians, blacks, Arabs and those unfortunate Latinos who look like Arabs. Of course, they'd miss Muslims of European descent (2.1 percent) and white American Muslims (1.6 percent) such as Adam Gadahn, who is actively being sought by the FBI for possible connections to terrorist threats against the United States. They'd also miss terrorists from the far right and far left, as well as animal-rights extremists and eco-terrorists, who are overwhelmingly white.
Proponents of racial profiling argue that these other terrorists don't matter, because the greater threat comes from Muslim extremists, but the numbers don't bear this out, either. The Southern Poverty Law Center's latest Intelligence Report details almost 60 right-wing terrorist plots over the last 10 years and, according to the FBI, right-wing extremists are not even as great a domestic threat as radical animal-rights and environmental terrorists. In fact, the handful of jihadist terrorist plots uncovered in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, is dwarfed by the hundreds of hate crimes directed against Muslim Americans over the same period.
Depending on the source, there are somewhere between 2 million (State Department) and 7 million Muslims (the Islam Project) living in the United States. Even using the lower estimate, if only 10 percent of Muslim Americans were sympathetic to Islamic extremism, they would constitute a force greater in number than the Coalition forces used to invade Iraq. I submit that if a force that large was in the United States, New York would look a lot more like Baghdad. It doesn't, because the number of Islamic extremists is actually only a tiny percentage of the Muslim-American population.
Yet otherwise intelligent people suggest that it's perfectly reasonable to racially profile all Asian, black and Arab Americans who might be Muslim in the hope of catching the very tiny percentage of Muslim extremists who might actually be a problem. They suggest that Muslim Americans should endure this inconvenience with the realization that the police are just trying to ensure everyone's safety. But it's not just the public humiliation that makes racial profiling wrong; it's the reinforcement of the false impression that all Muslims are potential terrorists.
Racial profiling is not just unreasonable, it's racism. And it's not just ineffective, it's counterproductive. Osama bin Laden has spent the last 15 years telling Muslims that Islam is under attack by the West: "They compromise our honor and our dignity," he said in a 1998 interview, "and dare we utter a word of protest against the injustice, we are called terrorists." Overstated to say the least, but effective nonetheless, because extremism is fueled by the perception of injustice. Racial profiling doesn't add to our arsenal -- it adds to his.