Wednesday, August 03, 2005
You Look Like a Terrorist 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
It took some time, but the gloves are coming off and a spade is finally being called a spade: when it comes to Homeland Security, it's about the Arabs. You know who they are: just look around.

At least that's the viewpoint coming out of some New York State politicians' mouths - that the police are wasting their time searching for terrorists using random checks of select subway passengers, and should instead use overt ethnic profiling to prevent terror attacks in their city. From the Associated Press, as seen on CBS 2 Chicago:
(AP) NEW YORK Arabs should be targeted for searches on city subways, two elected officials said, contending that the police department has been wasting time with random checks in its effort to prevent terrorism in the transit system.

...[O]ver the weekend, state Assemblyman Dov Hikind said police should be focusing on those who fit the "terrorist profile." "They all look a certain way," said Hikind, a Democrat from Brooklyn. "It's all very nice to be politically correct here, but we're talking about terrorism."
"The reality is that there is a group of people who want to kill us and destroy our way of life," he said. "Young Arab fundamentalists are the individuals undertaking these acts of terror, and we should keep those facts prominently in our minds and eyes as we attempt to secure our populace." Oddo commended Hikind for "rushing headlong against the strong undertow of political correctness." [read full article]
First of all, this approach of visually profiling high-risk individuals is fraught with problems, not the least of which is stereotype inaccuracies. Not all who look "Arab" are Middle Easterners, or Muslims for that matter - much less members of the specific subset of that group that includes radical fundamentalists, who are only one specific threat group.

Even the history of terrorism belies the proposed effectiveness of ethnic profiling: it would never have picked Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh out of a New York subway crowd, not in a million years.

Politicians who espouse searching for "suspicious-looking Arabs" are gambling on the idea that people can't (or won't) change their physical appearance to "pass" and avoid suspicion, and many people of Islamic background will not opt to dress in a manner that belies the tenets of their faith. Of course, many Muslims - okay, let's call a spade a spade, Muslim men - do not wear traditional clothing like the kufi cap, the thobe, the shalwar khameez or the galabiyya, nor do they always have beards, nor do they always speak Arabic. But, if New York decides to proceed with this proposed ethno-religious profiling, any of the above characteristics could label you as a suspected terrorist, with the government's imprimatur.

I understand that the reality of policing is often about statistics, stereotypes, and intuitive hunches that run counter to what we call "civil liberties," but as a practical measure "Arab profiling" would do little or nothing to make our cities safer. But - terrorism is simply an intermittent-payoff "shell game." Once the knowledge that police are surveilling for "Arabs" becomes public knowledge, terrorists will simply change their approach and their appearance. It's all about game theory, and shifting police resources to target the outwardly recognized symbolism of previous terrorist acts doesn't really address the nature of the real risk: the fluid menace of terrorism continually shifts once an attack has taken place. That's partly why we haven't seen a repeat of the September 11 airliner attacks...yet.

Contrary to Councilman Oddo's contention, reluctance to name and target a specific ethnic group in the name of national security isn't about "political correctness." It's about fundamental civil liberties; about people in America having the freedom to live their lives and use public accommodation like mass transit without the specter of religious and ethnic profiling by authorities. Have we forgotten the hardships thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans endured for similar reasons after the attack on Pearl Harbor?

And, Councilman Oddo, I'd wager that there are more than a few "skinny, balding Italian-Americans from Staten Island" that might visually trip a New York cop's Arab-o-meter, if you get my drift. Since we're comfortable dispensing with political correctness.

You say I'd change my tune if Chicago were attacked? With police formally on the lookout for people that appear "Arab," in all honesty, I wouldn't feel 'safer.' On the contrary, I would feel much more afraid, for the simple reasons that once this sort of profiling precedent is set, any other group could be selected as the next target for selective enforcement and searches, and because authorities are focusing their attention on the obvious.

Let's be honest. Living in fear of being searched and detained by authorities solely because of your appearance is a form of terror in itself.

More: NY 1, City Councilman Backs Hikind's Call For Ethnic Profiling:
A Staten Island Republican is joining Brooklyn State Assemblyman Dov Hikind in urging local authorities to use racial profiling when deciding who they search on subways and buses. Hikind has been calling for the New York City Police Department to focus on searching people that fit a "terrorist profile," but his statements have drawn criticism both from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD. On Tuesday, however, Staten Island Councilman James Oddo said that he agrees with Hikind. In a letter sent to Hikind on Tuesday, Oddo said he is offering Hikind his support.

"Plain and simply, young Arab fundamentalists are the individuals undertaking these acts of terror," Oddo said in the letter. When Oddo was asked about the comment Tuesday night on the NY1 program "The Call," he clarified that he meant to say Islamic fundamentalists, since several of the London bombers were not Arab.

"I thought about it late last night and early this morning and I realized that I wasn't (being said) out of emotion, it was out of common sense," Oddo told host John Schiumo. "I do think that the facts are Â? and history shows that Â? there is a particular entity, a particular group of people who are engaging in these terrorist activities. And they're not skinny, balding Italian-Americans from Staten Island." Oddo says he will introduce a resolution in the city council, supporting Hikind's pending legislation in Albany.
Related, on BoingBoing yesterday: "Starting this week, three US border crossings will begin to tag visitors to America with wireless RFID-cards, which contain visitors' personally identifying information and can be read from 12 yards away. The only exempted visitors are Canadians who are not on a US business visa or engaged to an American."