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"Spare No Resource" By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Weekly Standard | Monday, October 24, 2005

Although New York City police announced last week that they would scale back the increased security measures that followed the recent terrorism scare, the subway terror alert highlighted two basic facts. The first is that the terrorists would like to strike our mass transit system; the second, is that this system is still highly vulnerable. The most telling comment in the October 6 press conference in which city officials announced their resolve to safeguard the subways came from Mayor Bloomberg: "We will spare no resource; we will spare no expense." While intended as a statement of determination, Bloomberg's words instead accentuated the ineffectiveness of New York's anti-terror policing. New York could spare resources, spare expenses, and make passengers safer if it used terrorist profiling.

The morning after New York increased its subway security, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Mike German defending New York's use of purely random bag searches rather than profiling. The op-ed's weaknesses are emblematic of the overall case against profiling.

The argument for profiling is simple and compelling: If our last line of defense is searching bags before riders enter the subway, our searches should target the passengers who are most likely to be terrorists. Only through intelligently targeted searches can we have a reasonable chance of disrupting terrorist plots. This means we should try to figure out how terrorists look and act--and that law enforcement should be trained in taking these factors into account.

Because this case is intuitive and hard to refute (why would we treat, say, U.S. senators the same as Mohamed Atta?), the opponents of profiling seemingly turn to autopilot when arguing against it, throwing out every claim that could possibly support their position with little critical filter. German does this when he argues that completely random bag searches are just as effective as profiling. And his case begins with the creation of a false dichotomy, in which one option is the most awkward kind of profiling done solely on the basis of race, and the other option is random searches.

Thankfully, other choices lie along the spectrum between these two extremes. A truly effective system of terrorist profiling would not look solely at a person's race in determining whether extra scrutiny is justified. Rather, a range of factors--including gender, age, dress, and behavior--can be used to identify the most likely terrorists. Surely there can be no argument against considering these non-racial factors.

While police can make good use of statistics to focus searches on the most likely terrorists, German makes bad use of statistics in an attempt to prove otherwise. He first spends considerable space demonstrating that most Muslims in America are not Arab. While true, this doesn't prove the inefficacy of racial profiling, which is not synonymous with "Arab profiling."

German then argues that racial profiling would "miss Muslims of European descent (2.1 percent) and white American Muslims (1.6 percent) such as Adam Gadahn, who is actively being sought by the FBI for possible connections to terrorist threats against the United States." It's true that al Qaeda has managed to recruit some people who fall outside the general racial profile, but there are two problems with German's argument. First, under an effective profiling system, resources would be concentrated on races that are statistically most likely to be jihadist terrorists, but other races would not be ignored completely. (Indeed, if we learned that al Qaeda had recruited more whites, we'd adjust the applicable profile and search more whites.)

More to the point, the fact that the terrorist profiles won't be perfect doesn't mean that we shouldn't use them. Even if it were true that terrorist profiling results in too few whites being searched, the present system results in a complete misallocation of resources because it draws no distinction between a 12-year-old Japanese schoolkid and a 25-year-old Arab. The fact that terrorist profiling is an imprecise art doesn't mean we should resign ourselves to an approach we know to be ineffective--particularly when the public's safety is at stake.

German's final statistical argument is his most bizarre and off-base. He argues that racial profiling would "also miss terrorists from the far right and far left, as well as animal-rights extremists and eco-terrorists, who are overwhelmingly white." He claims that these groups cannot be ignored because there have been "almost 60 right-wing terrorist plots over the last 10 years and, according to the FBI, right-wing extremists are not even as great a domestic threat as radical animal-rights and environmental terrorists." This argument is every bit as irrelevant as it first appears. The question is not how many terrorist plots various groups have planned over the past 10 years; it is who's targeting New York's subway system right now. The answer is, of course, jihadist groups.

The bottom line is that one cannot sustain the argument that purely random bag searches are as effective as training police to identify potential terrorists by taking into account the wealth of information we have on how they look and act. But while German's argument that racial profiling is no better than the present system is confused and weak, he raises one legitimate concern: being racially profiled can be a humiliating and alienating experience. For this reason, it's important that a premium be placed on training officers to be polite and courteous in their interactions with passengers, so that nobody is made to feel guilty until proven innocent.

But even with this argument, German overplays his hand, arguing that "it's not just the public humiliation that makes racial profiling wrong; it's the reinforcement of the false impression that all Muslims are potential terrorists." Is that really the signal that would be sent by terrorist profiling? I submit that it is not. Police will be well aware that the vast majority of Muslims they interact with wouldn't even consider taking part in a terrorist attack. And what signal do we send with the converse policy, where we don't even try to improve our odds of breaking up a terrorist plot? The signal we send is that we're weak, that we're so concerned about sensitivities and offending others that we won't take the steps necessary to protect our citizens from death. And we send the signal that our defenses are easily penetrated--a signal that, sadly, isn't far off the mark.

We can continue with the present "spare no resource" approach in times of crisis. But we'd spare more resources, and be safer for it, if terrorist profiling were one of the tools in our anti-terror arsenal.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant and attorney.

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