Profiling with Respect

The rationale for the Justice Department's project of interviewing 5,000 Middle Eastern men who recently entered the US legally is to talk to everyone who even roughly corresponds with the profile of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

This targeted probe may turn up something - hints about possible terrorist planning, for instance, or patterns linking such information to particular countries. But it clearly tramples on the law-enforcement norm of having probable cause or well-founded suspicions before knocking on an individual's door.

Still, the country is on a war footing, facing the threat of further terrorism, and such norms need to be adjusted. The project's effectiveness - to say nothing of its palatability - will depend on how it is done.

Michigan, with the country's largest concentration of people of Middle Eastern background - both US citizens and visitors - is setting a wise example. The US attorney for the state's eastern district, Jeffrey Collins, working with local police officials, has sent letters to 700 men, inviting them to make appointments for interviews.

Thus, some dignity is added to the process - which is, after all, supposedly voluntary. Follow-up visits may come for those who don't respond.

Respect and courtesy will guide the process, says Mr. Collins. That's needed, particularly when asking questions ranging from phone numbers to views on terrorism. But still uncertain is what happens to those who refuse to answer. And how do you assure people that forthright answers won't get them into trouble?

The point, emphatically, is to foster cooperation, not to intimidate.

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