Debate over racial profiling intensifies on the Hill

In quest to curb terrorism, while still preserving civil rights, the controversial practice gets new scrutiny.

If much of Washington's official agenda vanished after the attacks of Sept. 11, one key topic survived: what to do about racial profiling.

Indeed, more than any other post-attack security issue, racial (or ethnic) profiling is emerging as a key test of how many civil liberties Americans are willing to surrender as their government tries to safeguard the homeland.

Other issues - such as looser strictures on immigration and reluctance to force air travelers to wait in long lines at airport security gates - have already fallen by the wayside. But on Capitol Hill, and even among those in law enforcement, the debate is, if anything, intensifying over whether and when racial profiling is an appropriate tool.

The issue has long been of utmost concern to the African-American community, which has argued that black citizens are unfairly targeted, and harassed, by law officers. Now, a chorus of voices - from President Bush on down to town mayors and civic groups - are cautioning against abridging the rights of Arab-Americans, especially by companies and private citizens who let fear impell irrational decisions.

Already, a Senate subcommittee has held hearings on how to curb terrorism without trampling on civil rights, including protection from racial profiling. And yesterday, a House committee marked up legislation that proposed a new Justice Department post - deputy inspector general for civil rights and civil liberties - responsible for ensuring that law agencies work to curb hate crimes and racial profiling.

"The American people are understandably feeling anxious about returning to our nation's skies, but we should not give the terrorists a victory by allowing the erosion of fundamental civil rights," wrote Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D) of Michigan, in an Oct. 1 letter to heads of the major airlines. "All Americans have the same right to travel free of discrimination."

In some ways, this civil rights issue would seem to be an unlikely survivor. A look at the terrorist suspects suggests what could seem a way to prevent future attacks: Target men who look like them.

That's why the crew and passengers of a Northwest flight asked three passengers of Middle Eastern origins not to board their plane a week after the attacks. (The airline has since apologized.) Some passengers who look like Arabs have been asked to leave trains and other planes.

So far, Arab-American groups say they are heartened by the US government's response to such blatant bias. The Justice Department is currently investigating 90 possible hate crimes against Arab-Americans or those who resemble them since the Sept. 11 attacks. Three indictments already have been handed down.

"The Justice Department has been in touch with us every day. We've never seen a response like this," says James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, based in Washington. "The community feels like the FBI is trying to protect them."

He adds, "We've asked authorities: Of all the people in my community that you hurt and humiliated [by racial profiling], did you get anything out of it? The answer has always been no."

HE AND others have been heartened by comments Sept. 17 by FBI Director Robert Mueller. Asked about complaints that the FBI is questioning Arab-Americans solely because of their ethnicity, he said the bureau's investigations are "based on predications that the individual may have information relating to acts that took place last week. We do not, have not, will not target people based solely on their ethnicity, period."

Some experts say it will be impossible - as well as unwise - to eliminate profiling from law enforcement. Many, in fact, predict that it will be used more often. But it would be an overreaction, they say, to profile all people from a certain region.

"There is an empirically responsible way of generating profiling. It has to be based on good intelligence collection and analytical capabilities," says Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence, and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

"Failing that, you risk harassing and discriminating against large numbers of people. It gives profiling a bad name."

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