Weighing Our Options

In the wake of another failed attempt to blow up an airliner, there has been a cacophony of voices, many arguing for restrictions on racial profiling to be lifted. Take my own representative in Congress, Pete King, now top dog on the House Homeland Security Committee (now there’s a scary thought). He’s been doing the rounds this week (CNN, MSNBC, Meet the Press, etc.) to capitalize on this near tragedy in his usual tasteless fashion. “If you’re looking for the IRA,” he says, “you go to Irish bars and Catholic churches; if you’re looking for the Mafia, you go to Little Italy; if you’re looking for the Ku Klux Klan, you don’t go to Harlem.” Well, Mr. King, the great Archibald Bunker could not have put it better. No one could accuse either of you of compounding ignorance with inaudibility.

Racial profiling seems like an easy solution, but it’s exactly the kind of thing we shouldn’t do. Instead of our usual outraged, knee-jerk hysteria, rejoicing in another opportunity to fling more of our civil liberties to the wind, we should weigh our choices carefully.

First, Jesus teaches us that “in everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As Christians we should stand up for those who are the victims of racial profiling. Why? Let’s remind ourselves of the words of Martin Niemoller, who was a pastor during Hitler’s rise to power. Like many clergymen, he at first supported Hitler because of the German leader’s firm anti-Communist stance. But when Nazism began to deify the state, Niemoller turned against Hitler and actively opposed him. For this he was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he had this to say. The words may sound familiar:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I realize that is not enough for some Christians, so here are a few other practical reasons:

Second, terrorist recruiters would like nothing more than to have us start rounding up more and more Muslims because they are Muslims; it proves to them that we truly are the enemies of Islam.

Third, profiling based on race, ethnicity or religion would not be effective. Why not? Read yesterday’s exchange between former Sec’y of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and NPR’s Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: How should the U.S. reconcile reasonable, ethical restraints on profiling with some obvious facts that this sort of thing has been done by Muslim men, typically, and also of a certain age. One could focus pretty heavily on Muslim men under 40 and come up with lots of the people who are posing threats.

CHERTOFF: Actually Robert, I’m going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling because people’s conception of what a potential terrorist looks like often doesn’t match reality. In this case we had a Nigerian, for example, not a person from the Middle East or from South Asia. If you look at the airline plot of 2006, two of the plotters were a married couple that were going to get on a plane with a young baby. The terrorists understand that the more they vary the kind of operative they use, the more likely they’re going to be able to exploit prejudices if we allow those prejudices to guide the way we conduct our investigation.

SIEGEL: Your objection to profiling is not just as an ethical matter, it’s a point of efficacy also. You’re saying it doesn’t work.

CHERTOFF: I think it’s not only problematic from civil rights’ standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective.

I’m glad he footnoted the civil rights’ issue as well as the pragmatic one. They are both important. Chertoff was on NPR to promote the use of body scanners in airports. Incidentally, he did admit to being a paid “consultant” for several firms that manufacture such scanners, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Of course, such scanners would be a boon to security. The ethical and privacy issues, however, are labyrinthine.

Call me a cynic, but the lapses in security surrounding the recent bomb attempt are so bizarre, I can’t help wondering if the whole incident weren’t somehow a coordinated effort on the part of our government to sell the idea of body scanning to a frightened American public. Usually, I’m one who tends to poo-poo conspiracy theories; if there’s any conspiracy afoot it’s usually one of incompetence. Our government is rarely coordinated enough to organize conspiracies; it’s more like a loose confederation of warring tribes. However, the older I get, the less I trust my own government, I’m sad to say. So my suspicion stands. A few years from now, someone will probably come out with a book about it, but by then the American public will be so desensitized to having their bodies ogled by security personnel, they won’t care. For 2010 I suggest we all start hitting the gym.

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