08/13/2005 06:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Profiling Means Surrender in the War On Terrorism

In the shockwave of the London terror-bombings, Brooklyn State Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s call to resurrect racial profiling targeting “young Arab fundamentalists” on our subways reveals a tragic misunderstanding. Not only is racial profiling illegal -- having not once stood up to a court challenge -- but it is also profoundly ineffective and counter-productive.

I understand the temptation to fish where the fish are. But as James Glaser, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, puts it: “if we know all pregnant people are women, we can conclude that someone pregnant is therefore a woman,” but it would be ridiculous “to conclude that someone who is a woman is therefore pregnant.” Similarly, even if recent terrorists are likely to be of Middle Eastern origin, it would be ridiculous to assume the Pakistani in front of you at Grand Central is a terrorist. He might be, but the odds are astronomical that he is not, and assigning an entire police unit at the cost of over a million dollars a week to effectively frisk anyone who resembles him seems a pretty useless task.

Hikind’s argument that “every case of recent terrorism has been committed by individuals [from a] Middle Eastern country” falls apart if you flip through the details of these terror atrocities. In London, one of the bombers was actually from Jamaica, while the following week’s failed attempts netted a Somali immigrant. Neither of these men fit the description of “Arab.” Nor do home-grown, lilly-white terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph. Somehow, letting off equally capable terrorists because they’re Caucasian doesn’t make me feel much safer.

Maybe that’s also because so many police studies show that racial profiling doesn’t work. Studies conclude that even when minorities are stopped in their cars and searched more often, they are no more likely than whites to have contraband. Random searches, when conducted properly, are just as effective and far more of a deterrent than vaguely defined categories of race and origin. On subway platforms specifically, why not simply use trained dogs that flawlessly sniff out explosives, not Arabs?

Naysayers scoff that terrorism is not “any given crime,” but the consequences of profiling remain the same. Look at the tragic death of Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes in the London Underground the other week. Tensions were high at the time, but his shooting occurred in part because of his darker complexion. Last I checked, Brazil was in South America, not the Middle East. Things get confusing when entire communities become targets of suspicion and, inevitably, innocents suffer. And what’s to stop al Qaeda from simply recruiting people who don’t look Middle Eastern should racial profiling become standard practice here?

Or think of it this way: if statistics showed that adherents of Religion A on average cheated on their taxes more than members of Religion B, would Assemblyman Hikind then approve of, say, squads to always closely investigate the filings of Religion A, be they Catholic, Jew or Methodist? If statistical correlations alone justify racial or religious discrimination against entire groups, we have a very different America than the one I studied in law school.

Yet Hikind pleads that, “there are certain things you do in wartime that you don't do in peacetime.” But every time civil liberties have been suspended, the result has been a humiliation not only for the targeted community but also ultimately for the United States. Besides the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War Two, for which the government issued an apology and reparations, Bush’s deferral of constitutional procedure for Guantanamo detainees drew a Supreme Court rebuke. Indeed, they make the further suspension of the rights of Middle Eastern-looking folk on New York’s subways that much more gruesome. You’re stopped at Columbus Circle on your way home from work, and you may wake up in Cuba without your family ever getting a phone call.

Ultimately, profiling hurts the so-called “war on terror” because it feeds the resentments of marginalized immigrants and can provoke victims to go from hostile to homicidal. Even Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that this is a “war for hearts and minds.” Needlessly degrading the very communities we want as our allies—on the specious grounds that it will make our commutes safer—risks even more terrorists growing from the soil of police sweeps.