September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document

Story: Unlike so many other domestic political issues, racial profiling did not
disappear with the collapse of the twin towers. Instead, it gained
immediate importance, even as it was dramatically recast. Before September
11, 2001, eighty-one percent of Americans wanted racial profiling stopped.
After September 11, over fifty percent of Americans said they supported
profiling -- as long as it was profiling of Middle Easterners at airports.
Using racial or ethnic appearance to describe known suspects works when a
specific crime has occurred and the police have a physical description of
the perpetrator. In the case of these acts of terrorism, however, all
known suspects died in the hijackings. The government is now using racial
profiling in an on-going ""war against terrorism."" But as we have learned
from the ""war on drugs,"" using racial profiles to predict future behavior
is folly.
Real police work is about observing suspicious behavior, not appearance.
When we use physical appearance as a proxy for criminality, law enforcement
shifts its attention away from what counts - how people behave. This
approach sweeps huge numbers of innocent people into the investigative net,
squandering our finite law enforcement resources and diminishing the
chances of recognizing aberrant behavior when it happens. It also
guarantees that we will miss many terrorists who do not fit our image of
what terrorists ""should look like"": the alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid,
""dirty bomber"" Jose Padilla, and homegrown terrorists like Tim McVeigh.
Racial profiling has the added consequence of alienating the very people
most able to help spot al-Qaeda ""sleepers"" on our soil: thousands of
innocent Middle Easterners, who, instead of being viewed as potential
partners in intelligence gathering, have been detained and treated as
criminals.
Finally, statistics on hit rates - the rate at which police find actual
evidence of crime - for officers using racial profiling to identify
criminals, show clearly that this tactic is less effective than policing
that uses behavior rather than skin color as the basis for suspicion.
Attorney General Ashcroft and his colleagues in law enforcement should
take the lessons of the highway to the airport: Even and especially in a
time of great fear, singling out groups of people for suspicion based on
their physical appearance is neither constitutional, morally acceptable,
nor effective.


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