Profiling's Limits

Racial or ethnic profiling is an investigative tool that relies on the statistical probability that certain types of people are more likely to commit certain criminal or violent acts.

So defined, it may have a logical place in the current search for those who might have ties to terrorist cells, or who might be planning acts of terrorism.

All the known participants in the Sept. 11 attacks were of Arab background. Hence, the logical tendency to zero in on Arab-looking people or people with Arabic names at, for instance, airport checkpoints.

Even a majority of Arab Americans recently surveyed in the Detroit area said the tendency of officials to give people of their ethnicity extra scrutiny was justified.

But there are very important limits to this practice. For instance:

• Ethnic profiling is essentially a more sophisticated form of stereotyping. It doesn't make any allowance for individuality, and is thus at odds with basic American beliefs. It easily plays into prejudice.

That's why more than a dozen states have passed laws recently to discourage the use of profiling by police (see story, page 2).

• Used as a primary law-enforcement tool, it's not very effective - and may be counter-effective. Only a tiny percentage of Arab Americans are likely to have terrorist sympathies. The vast majority are hard-working citizens or legal residents. They have varied religious affiliations. And they should be approached by police or checkpoint personnel in ways that inspire cooperation, not fear.

• Heavy use of profiling would be a descent into the mindsets of terrorists themselves. Osama bin Laden doesn't think of Americans as individuals, but as "infidels," enemies of his perversely theocratic vision. That hateful stereotype goads his followers to commit mass murder without even considering what's being done to real people.

These aspects of ethnic profiling should give Americans pause before applying this method widely.

Yes, the ethnic or religious identity of a person may be one factor, preferably not the only one, leading to heightened scrutiny of some passengers, truck drivers, and so forth. But that scrutiny should be handled with care and respect.

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