The False Promise of Profiling Terrorists

In the wake of the bombings in London last month, there has been much ado here in the States on the merits of racial profiling as a means of netting would-be terrorists. The logic (such as it is) goes something like this: most terrorists are Islamic radicals; most Islamic radicals are of Middle Eastern dissent; that guy looks like a Middle Easterner; therefore, that guy is more likely to be a terrorist than that white guy next to him.

As is so often the case, however, simplistic ideas rarely solve complex problems.

The premise that a Middle Eastern-looking guy is more likely to be a terrorist is legitimate only if it is demonstrably true that Middle Easterners are more likely to commit terrorist acts against the United States than non-Middle Easterners. If this is not demonstrably true, then the underlying premise of racial profiling is fallacious and the argument favoring racial profiling must collapse.

Putting the profiling argument to the test, there have been two major terrorist attacks on American soil. The first was committed by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 when he detonated a massive bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 and wounding over 500, including many small children. McVeigh was a white guy from upstate New York. The second was committed on September 11, 2001, by 19 Islamic jihadists when they crashed four domestic passenger jets into various targets, including the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths. The majority of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi Arabian, and all were members of Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization based in the Middle East.

Thus, of the two major terrorist attacks committed on American soil, only one was committed by individuals of Middle Eastern descent. The other was committed by one white guy, with the help of other white guys, none of whom appeared to be Islamic fanatics or of Middle Eastern descent. Nevertheless, following the Oklahoma City bombing, there was no call for subjecting young, white males with short hair who were decorated Army veterans to closer scrutiny or warrantless searches.

How about Ted Kaczynski? The notorious Unabomber terrorized the U.S. for nearly two decades, killing 3 and wounding 29. He is a white male, born in Chicago, highly educated, and appalled at the evils of technology. No profiling of smart white guys from the suburbs, who also happened to be Luddites, followed Kaczynski’s terrorism. Don’t forget Eric Robert Rudolph. He committed a series of bombings across the country, killing three and wounding at least 150. Rudolph is a white guy, born in Florida, fan of Nietzsche, and staunchly opposed to abortion and homosexuality. As a result of Rudolph’s string of bombings, police didn’t start paying closer attention to Nietzsche-loving, homophobic, white guys opposed to abortion.

The Symbionese Liberation Army. Weathermen. Ku Klux Klan. Jose Padilla (the would-be “Dirty Bomber”). None involved individuals of Middle Eastern descent. Yet all committed, or attempted to commit, acts of terrorism in the U.S. It is, therefore, not demonstrably true that individuals of Middle Eastern descent are more likely to commit terrorist attacks against the U.S. than are homegrown white males. Accordingly, the argument in favor of profiling must fail.

Throughout U.S. history, profiling has been repeatedly employed in times of crisis, only to be regretted once the crisis passed. The most famous example is the mass internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Guilty of nothing more than looking Japanese and having a Japanese-sounding surname, thousands of Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in reaction to the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. During World War I, the Palmer Raids resulted in the warrantless arrests of around 5,000 mostly innocent resident aliens of Eastern European descent on suspicion of communism.

The first example of profiling in the U.S. occurred during the very formation of the country. During the Revolutionary War, Congress authorized the arrest and detention of Quakers on suspicion of being British sympathizers. The only basis for their suspected British sympathies was the mere fact that they were Quakers. There was no evidence that any of the Quakers who were detained and even exiled had ever aided or supported the British.

There is no evidence that these historic examples of profiling made the U.S. any safer. Likewise, there is no evidence that profiling individuals of Middle Eastern descent will make us any safer today.

Renewing the call for racial profiling to combat terrorism might make some people feel a little better. It might even, by sheer chance, result in an averted attack. It will not, however, offer any real protection against terrorists and will only further demonstrate our apparent inability to learn anything from history.

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