Rationalizing Racism: Panic and Profiling After 9/11

Published as a ZNet Commentary, January 16, 2002

Random security checks. That’s what they’re called anyway: those extra bag searches and body scans being done at airports across the U.S., presumably to deter a new round of terrorist attacks. On each flight, a handful of passengers are pulled aside and given additional scrutiny, despite having gone through souped-up metal detectors and having their luggage scanned and examined far more intently than prior to 9/11.

Having traveled on dozens of flights since that day, I’ve had the chance to observe how these “random” checks are being done; and I can say without fear of contradiction that the only time randomness comes into play is when there are no persons of Arab or Middle Eastern descent present. Otherwise, the random selection begins to bear a striking resemblance to blatant racial and ethnic profiling. The wrong last name or skin shade, or even better, a hijab, turban or other religiously-identifiable head covering, are just a few of the factors that the “random” computer selections seem to miraculously pick out every time.

Even Latinos, whose ethnicity isn’t apparent to the ticket takers, are facing additional scrutiny. I recently observed a nervous gate crew eyeing four young men on a flight from Nashville, despite the fact that even under the overbroad, anti-Arab profiling that has become so common, they hardly “fit the description.” Their names, (which I learned by peeking at their boarding passes), were Martinez, Melendez, and Rodriguez. They all spoke Spanish, their final destination was Guadalajara, and one was flying with his girlfriend and their newborn baby. But their appearance got every one of them pulled out of line. I’ve even seen two white women singled out by ticket agents who saw their names — Rashidi and Habib — and assumed the worst. Although they continued the searches even after realizing their mistake, one could hardly miss the embarrassment on their faces. Inconveniencing white folks, after all, is never one’s desire.

In addition to profiling in airports, one might also consider the rounding up of over a thousand immigrants from the Middle East, almost none of whom have ties to al-Qaeda or any terrorist group, but whom the Administration wants detained anyway. Likewise, the 5000 or so whom Attorney General Ashcroft wants interviewed by local police, despite no reasonably inferred connection between them and terrorist organizations. Again, nationality and ethnicity suffice in the eyes of officialdom to justify suspicion and differential treatment.

To many, complaints about such measures may seem trivial. “What’s the big deal?” ask some. Isn’t security worth the inconvenience to those singled out? But as with all racial profiling, the present incarnation is every bit as unjust and irrational. Despite calls from many quarters for more profiling, under the rubric of “common sense,” the fact remains that it is not sensible at all. I’ll return to this subject, but first, a few words about the quite apparent moral impropriety of the practice.

To single out persons of a particular nationality or ethnicity, or to heighten one’s suspicion of such a group is blatantly unjust. It is in fact plainly racist, as such general suspicion and mistreatment never seem to attach to white folks, no matter what profile we may fit. After the Oklahoma City bombing, white men were not singled out, held incommunicado, rounded up for questioning, nor quizzed when trying to rent moving vans. Indeed, I rented a Ryder truck shortly after McVeigh blew one of their fleet sky-high, along with the Murrah Building. And despite being a white guy, with short hair, named Tim nonetheless, no one said a word to me, nor asked for a deposit up front, just in case I decided to load the truck with ammonium nitrate and take out a city block. Although white supremacist and militia groups most certainly came in for additional scrutiny in the aftermath of McVeigh’s act of mass murder, notice the difference between that response and what is happening now. In the former instance, only very specific kinds of white people became possible suspects. In the latter case, there is a general response of fear towards all persons fitting the physical, ethnic, and religious description of the terrorists. Even the bombing of Afghanistan can be viewed as racially selective. After all, if the attackers of 9/11 had been members of the Irish Republican Army, it is simply inconceivable that we would have ripped up the real estate of Dublin as punishment.

So despite the cavalier claims by many whites that anti-Arab profiling is no big deal, and that they would be happy to be profiled if white guys had been behind the attacks in September, the fact remains, whether willing or not, they would never have had to worry about such a response. And that’s the point. Even when law enforcement operates with a profile in mind that involves white men, as in the case of serial killers, it never results in random harassment of white guys. Having walked around Spokane, Washington on many occasions, all the while “fitting the description” of any number of serial killers whom the area seems to breed like rabbits, I can attest to never once feeling under suspicion, nor being stopped and frisked, searched or asked the time of day by law enforcement officials.

And with the FBI announcing in October that recent anthrax attacks are almost certainly domestic in origin, and even possibly the work of far-right groups, “rational” profiling would then dictate that white men with access to labs working with anthrax be rounded up and questioned. But don’t expect that to happen, though it likely would have, had the source appeared to be Middle Eastern in origin.

Beyond the injustice of generalized suspicion and mistreatment of specific groups, is the simple reality that such tactics are not likely to boost security. First off, any terrorist linked to al-Qaeda seeking to engage in further acts of mayhem, would likely pick other means for carrying out planned attacks: means that would not involve airplanes at all, thereby bypassing the new security measures.

Secondly, if such persons were to attempt more hijackings it is unlikely that they would make use of the same kinds of folks as those who carried out the attacks of 9/11. Al-Qaeda, it should be recalled, has members who are Sudanese, Somali, Indonesian, and Filipino: none of whom would necessarily, by virtue of their appearance or names, touch off suspicion. In addition, airline bombings could still be carried out, with explosives checked under the plane, and placed in the luggage of unassuming travelers whose names would be less likely to trigger a bag check. Smith or Jones, for instance.

Profiling and special scrutiny of Arabs and Muslims would also inevitably result in the letting down of one’s guard, relative to other possible threats. Just as white suburban school shootings or workplace murders are made more likely by the belief that such things “can’t happen here” (since crime and violence are thought to be the province of the dark or poor), so too could the extra attention given to those perceived as possible Middle Eastern terrorists result in too little caution applied elsewhere. Neo-Nazis, anti-abortion militants, and assorted domestic nuts of all stripes will be able to fly below radar, while the rest of us remain fixated on stopping every guy named Mohammed for questioning.

And by engaging in selective profiling and harassment of certain groups, we can only succeed in sowing mistrust and disrespect for the law among those targeted. Such a result would certainly not bode well for any real attempts at fighting terrorism. After all, if people really do have information about terrorist plots, but are unwilling to come forward for fear they may become suspects themselves — or merely because they view law enforcement as implacably arrayed against them in an unfair manner — then the cooperation sought and required for truly effective counterterrorism efforts will be hampered. Just as antiblack profiling increases resentment in the black community, so too will such actions reap discord among Arabs, Muslims, or those perceived as either.

What’s more, if the government or private airlines send the message that certain people are to be considered more dangerous based solely on their color, national origin, religion, or name, they are implicitly encouraging individuals in the society to also treat such persons differently, or in a discriminatory fashion. And with that, comes the real possibility of bias crime, harassment, and even violence by weak-minded individuals who figure that if their leaders say certain folks are a problem, perhaps they should take things into their own hands. Already, there have been hundreds of reported cases of physical violence or harassment against persons perceived as Arab or Muslim. Such incidents can only increase as officials send forth the message that these persons are dangerous.

The bottom line is this: unless we are prepared to profile every group equally when their members are disproportionate among certain wrongdoers, then it is unjust and racist to engage in such practice selectively. Until whites are subjected to random searches, home invasions, highway stops, and other mistreatment for the negative actions in which we lead the pack, such as drunk driving, drug use, mass murder and serial killing, shoplifting, kidnapping, and child sexual molestation among them, then any suggestion that we should give our blessing to the singling out of those fitting this year’s “terrorist” profile is simply an excuse for the systematic oppression of weaker groups by the more powerful.

A decent people would say no to such insanity.

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