It’s always fun to watch national politicos as they courageously attack errors and injustices that no sane person would ever defend in the first place.
Case in point is Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D - San Francisco) and her hallucinations about racial and religious profiling in the war against militant Islam. Just as children play with imaginary friends, Nancy Pelosi battles imaginary opponents.
Last month the fantasy combat was in full swing, as Pelosi spoke at an event sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In her address, she railed against the alleged racial and religious profiling of Muslims in America, chanting the usual incantations about John Ashcroft and the ‘fundamental denial of due process,’ exhorting her listeners to ‘correct the Patriot Act’ and save liberal democracy.
Of course, all her chatter about ethnic and religious profiling had little to do with reality. Nobody who knows anything about counterterrorism would ever advocate profiling based on racial, ethnic, or religious criteria. And when American leaders like Pelosi speak as though genuine profiling might involve such ridiculous categories, needless doubt is cast on one of law enforcement’s most effective weapons against terrorism.
In the war on radical Islam, intelligence and law enforcement officials often extol the virtues of profiling. But when they do, they aren’t talking about race, religion, or ethnicity.
On the one hand, these categories are far too broad. The world has 1.3 billion Muslims, while the terrorists who can do us harm number somewhere in the thousands. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to see that the most useless counterterrorism advice you can give a police officer is, “Watch out for Muslims.”
At the same time, race and ethnicity are also too narrow. We would be foolish to tell Customs agents to be on guard against Arabs, when al Qaeda and its allies include nationalities from every continent, latitude, and language group, from blond Chechens to black Tanzanians, from East Asians to South Americans to Central Europeans. Even small, indigenous terrorist groups can surprise you with their ‘diversity’. Take Aum Shinrikyo, the weird Japanese religious cult that released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway back in 1995. Even though its beliefs were centered on Japan and Japanese destiny, Aum Shinrikyo still managed to inspire a band of Russian crackpots.
And it is not as though Islamic terrorists don’t read the newspapers. They know Westerners reflexively associate them with the Arab world, and they are taking advantage of that. In the United States, the FBI believes al Qaeda may be using operatives from Chechnya, Bosnia, and Western Europe, precisely because so many Americans picture an ‘Islamic terrorist’ as a Gulf Arab in a burnoose. And earlier this month, authorities in Britain arrested and deported two men suspected of casing the Prime Minister’s residence on behalf of al Qaeda. The two were Lithuanians, which is just about as northern European as you can get.
All this is well known to counterterrorism professionals, which is why the silly caricatures Pelosi throws around have so little to do with genuine profiling.
Far from the crude harassment to which Pelosi alludes, real profiling is a sophisticated and important tool in the war against terror, especially for state and local law enforcement. It’s based on concrete behavioral and environmental indicators, often augmented by specific intelligence reports. Profiling involves things like travel patterns, deportment during official questioning, how money is spent, the way cars are rented, and hundreds of other flags. Ahmed Ressam, the al Qaeda operative who planned to attack Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, was detained and arrested when telltale behaviors, not his race or religion, alerted a savvy U.S. Customs Inspector working the Canadian border. That’s profiling.
So if race or religion play no part in the profiling regimes advocated by law enforcement and intelligence professionals, then what is Pelosi talking about? Is she simply pandering to the self-serving prejudices of sundry Democratic interest groups, like CAIR? Unfortunately, in many cases she probably is.
But there are also times, one must acknowledge, when she is saying something more. Sometimes when Pelosi and others speak about racial and religious profiling, they are actually referring to the problem of the mean cop, the policeman who uses his authority to bully and intimidate people who come from groups he doesn’t like.
But if this is what Pelosi is referring to, she should say so plainly. It’s harmful and inaccurate to use ‘profiling’ as a euphemism for the disgraceful ethnic chauvinism occasionally found among some of our nation’s law enforcement officers.
Profiling is a highly developed and reliable tool in the fight against terrorism, and people of Pelosi’s prominence do serious harm when they throw it into the same bucket with harassment and bigotry. As a US Representative and leader of the House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi should articulately defend counterterrorist profiling. Such a principled stance wouldn’t win her any applause from the CAIR crowd, but it’s the right thing to do for our country.
 John Diamond and Toni Locy, USA Today, “Non-Arab recruits scout for al Qaeda,” 16 August 2004.
 Ben English, The Advertiser (south Australia), “Plot to kill British PM thwarted,” 17 August 2004.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.