New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose job is to help protect one of the world’s key terrorist targets, recently stated, “You can’t predict what a terrorist looks like.”
Bloomberg’s comment was in response the lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union to stop random baggage checks, which the group predictably said would lead to racial profiling of Middle Easterners and Arabs. Bloomberg and the New York City Police Department declared there would be an outright ban on racial profiling and that baggage checks would be totally random.
Not everyone is hewing the politically correct line. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, is introducing legislation to allow racial profiling for bag searches, rejecting Bloomberg’s contention. “They all look a certain way,” Hikind told the Associated Press. “It’s all very nice to be politically correct here, but we’re talking about terrorism.” Hikind has some back up support from New York City Councilman James Oddo, a Republican, who wants the council to pass a resolution supporting the legislation. Neither the taboo-breaking bill, nor the resolution supporting it has a decent chance of passing. Still, politicians of different parties and different ethnicities now seem to be warming to the concept that common sense profiling could be an effective method to prevent a terrorist attack. The Sept. 11 hijackers, the London bombers, and the bombers of the U.S.S. Cole had some undeniable common physical traits. Common sense profiling would mean that race could be considered a factor but not the only factor, some supporters said.
Selim Noujaim, who came from Lebanon to the United States about three decades ago, could be an anecdote to Hikind’s tough talk. Noujaim, a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives said he was profiled twice, once in the Netherlands and once in Philadelphia, where he was stopped for searches. Nonetheless, he wants to allow state law enforcement to profile for the sake of stopping terrorism.
“I was inconvenienced, but I had nothing to hide,” Noujaim said in an interview. “They may target innocent people sometimes. I was innocent. But if this stops one attack or one killing, it’s worth it.”
Noujaim, a Republican, said being of Middle Eastern decent gives him more credibility to speak on the matter. He said he has gotten only positive input about the bill from all across the country. Still, he knows the bill will be a tough sell when the Connecticut legislature reconvenes next year. He said he would make sure the bill had language so as not to give “police a free license to rough people up.”
Assuming proper safe guards against police overstepping their bounds, limited profiling would be Constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled and upheld rulings that a government may apply race-based classification to advance a “compelling government interest,” so long as it is “narrowly tailored.”
“If the stakes are high enough – if there is a compelling state interest – it is permissible to take race and ethnicity into account,” said Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, in an interview. “If you are trying to keep people from being murdered, that is a compelling interest. If it is a lesser goal it’s not permissible.”
The court rulings were made to allow affirmative action in government hiring and also to allow segregation of prisoners after a prison race riot. Still, Clegg said the notion applies to terrorism. “The fact is, you have to take a harder look at some individuals than others,” Clegg said.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, chairman of the national security subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, stopped short of advocating profiling.
“I don’t like racial profiling,” the Connecticut Republican said in an interview. “But if we know the threat is from Middle Eastern or Pakistani young males, we can’t ignore that.”
A fear of profiling could lead to ignoring the people that should be stopped by police during a random search, Shays said.
“If the choice is between a young man who fits the profile and an 85-year-old woman, you would check the young man – unless 85-year-old women become a threat.”
A top British police officer made a similar remark. “We should not waste time searching for old white ladies,” Ian Johnston, a chief constable of the British Transport Police, said in a public statement after the terrorist bombings of the London transit system that killed 56 people and injured 700.
The aftermath of that attack demonstrates the worst side of profiling dark-skinned people. British police shot a Brazilian man, 33-year-old Ajmal Masroor, in the head seven times because they mistook him for a suicide bomber.
Racial profiling in Britain has been an issue even before the bombings. The Washington Post reported government statistics from last year show blacks were eight times more likely and Asians were five times more likely to be stopped than white people in the stop-and-search laws granted to police under the British government’s anti-terrorism policy.
Such a system has pitfalls, Clegg said. “Just because you can take race and ethnicity into account doesn’t mean you should,” Clegg said. “You don’t want to alienate people in the community – in this case Arabs and Muslims – when you need their help.”
Clegg said other factors shouldn’t be discarded in favor of race only. Rather he said it could be one factor to complement other factors in fighting crime. He said police have been able to spot drug trafficking based on the number of people in a car and their ages. Race was just one other characteristic to be considered. This view could avoid the problems that have occurred in London.
Times are changing, and people in the United States must adapt, said Noujaim, the Connecticut state lawmaker. “People have a relaxed, peaceful and easy feeling. There is no place like America,” Noujaim said. “In other countries, they are used to seeing guns and armored vehicles on street corners.”
In the NYCLU lawsuit to stop random baggage checks, only one of the five plaintiffs, Partha Banerjee, said he was concerned about racial profiling. He also complained that he is afraid some of his political materials he carries in his bag would prompt retaliation.
In New York, police doing the random checks must note the ethnicity of each person they stop for a random baggage check to ensure that no racial profiling happens. This type of tracking is profiling, Clegg said, and could undermine the city’s security measure.
“Suppose you stop two African-Americans, you would be reluctant to stop a third,” out of concern for statistics, Clegg said. “This could either lead to not stopping someone who should be stopped or stopping a non-African-American who shouldn’t be stopped.”
When Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, announced the lawsuit earlier this month, she said, “This NYPD bag search policy is unprecedented, unlawful and ineffective.”
Courts will decide if the searches are unprecedented and unlawful. It could be up to Bloomberg and law enforcement overcome their squeamishness about what terrorists look like that determines if Lieberman is correct about the effectiveness.