Sunday, January 10, 2010

Racial profiling makes us less safe

Focusing security efforts on Muslims is far too general to be of assistance -- and can inhibit collecting genuinely useful intelligence

By David M. Tanovich, Ottawa Citizen (January 8, 2010)

Once again we are debating the reasonableness of racial profiling following the failed Christmas Day bombing.

That the issue is being debated so openly and fervently is probably not a great surprise given the fear engendered by the thought of airline bombings, and since most proponents of profiling have no idea what it is like to live every day under a cloud of suspicion.

It would appear that rather than address the human rights violations and collateral damage caused by profiling, the focus has shifted to so-called common sense, or as Leonard Stern wrote in his Thursday column "What anti-profilers don't get," to statistical generalization arguments.

As an "anti-profiler," I want to respond to these arguments.

The idea that it is only common sense to focus on young Muslim men is grounded in the belief that these attributes have some value to security officials in finding the next terrorist.

However, experience and logic paint a very different picture. Experience tells us that, generally speaking, profiling does not work in the criminal law or security context as a means of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Countless examples can be cited, from the Virginia Sniper (whom the profilers were convinced was white) to the 1986 case of an Irish woman who was pregnant and whose Palestinian boyfriend had planted a bomb in her suitcase as she travelled from London to Tel Aviv.

It is not surprising then that no one can point to a case where racial profiling actually worked to stop a terrorist from boarding a plane. What works is good intelligence and screening for truly suspicious behaviour.

Meanwhile, logic tells us that reliance on profiling of any kind will only serve to put us in greater danger.

Osama bin Laden or those who have taken his place are well-trained with considerable intelligence experience (let's not forget that bin Laden, for example, received training from the CIA). They are well aware of the profile, which is why each airline or subway attack has been carried out by someone who doesn't fit the profile of those who committed the last attack.

Indeed, before 9/11, bin Laden was attempting to recruit would-be terrorists who did not fit the profile. For example, Jack Roche, a White British-born Australian, met bin Laden at a training camp in Afghanistan and was told to recruit white Australians. Roche would later become the first Australian convicted under its anti-terrorism legislation for his involvement in an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the Israeli embassy in Canberra.

Two other white men caught training in Afghanistan (American John Walker Lindh and Australian David Hicks) would have been prime candidates to carry out attacks under the radar had they not been caught. One thing is for sure, it is not likely that the next terrorist attack in an airplane or subway will be perpetrated by an individual with ties to one of the 14 countries that form part of the new terrorist watch list.

The profile is not even a profile.

The fact that all of the attacks have been carried out by Muslim men provides far too general information to be of assistance. To take it out of the terrorism context, we know that in Canada, much more than 95 per cent of those who commit sexual assault are men and the overwhelming majority of those men are white. How do these facts help law enforcement find the next rapist or identify the last one?

Adding country of origin or travel doesn't make it any better. There are more than 500,000 Muslims in Canada, between one and three million Muslims in the United States and 1.5 billion in the world. Fifty-four countries in the world have significant Muslim populations and there are terrorists in every country from the United States and Canada, to England.

Countless hours will be wasted targeting individuals simply on the basis of religion, skin colour, citizenship or travel. Not only will we be wasting limited resources and allowing a terrorist who does not fit the profile on a plane but profiling will only further inhibit intelligence gathering because it will further alienate those individuals and groups who may have valuable information to share.

As if the haystack were not big enough, it is virtually impossible to determine by a quick visual scan who is the needle. Names, skin colour, citizenship will not always provide an answer as to who is Muslim.

Finally, let us not forget that the December attack could have easily been stopped with proper intelligence sharing and with a focus on suspicious behaviour such as the attacker's agitated state, his travel from Amsterdam to Detroit without baggage and the purchase of his ticket with cash. The same can be said about 9/11. The terrorists were travelling with expired visas, purchased a one-way first class ticket with cash and had learned to fly without also learning how to land. Focusing on behaviour and not screening thousands of innocent individuals is the most effective way of keeping us safe.

This is the common sense approach, not profiling.

David M. Tanovich is a law professor at the University of Windsor and author of The Colour of Justice: Policing Race in Canada. He is also academic director of Windsor Law's Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP).
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

1 comment:

  1. Great Post!

    Being a Muslim myself, I can attest to the stigmatization and social exclusion of what has been constructed as a dangerous 'pariah.'

    This reminds me of an experience where a health care professional, upon discovering that I was born in Saudi Arabia, asked me whether I believe in abusing women; as if being Muslim automatically made me into a barbaric and violent human being.

    I have come to view this as what Edward Syed described as "Orientalism" where the West but also global media, more generally, has constructed, and continues to disseminate and reproduce the idea of the Middle-Eastern individual as foreign, unknown, mysterious, and dangerous.

    This is most apparent in Canadian and North American practices such as no fly lists, security certificates, and arbitrary detention under the Anti-Terrorism Act, Freezing Assets, and also in the labeling of practices such as "Flying While Arab."

    Ironically, these efforts undermine national security and create resentment in the Muslim population. This resentment and frustration extends towards law enforcement and policy-makers but also becomes generalized to broader societal institutions. I have witnessed the resentment, sorrow and helplessness amongst my peers at mosques and gatherings where conversations revolve around race and religion based inequality and disenfranchisement.