Politics & Policy

Profiles in Profiling

My debate with Nadine Strossen.

I’ve just returned from Boone, North Carolina. From what I saw — alas, not much — it’s a lovely mountain spot, nestled amidst thousands of those tall wood leaf thingies. I was in Boone to debate Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, at Appalachian State University (Note: If you don’t pronounce it Appah-LATCH-AN, they smear you in raspberry jam and feed you face-first to black bears — not that the color of the bears is all that relevant).

It was a fun and lively debate, albeit a bit of a mismatch. Ms. Strossen is one of America’s leading lawyers, law professors, and, of course, civil libertarians. Her C.V. runs long, with things like “Ms. Strossen was twice named one of the top 100 lawyers in the country” and so forth. Meanwhile, mine contains things like “Mr. Goldberg claims to have held 32 Cheetos in his mouth at one time.”

Nevertheless, I think I more than held my own, at least that’s what the people who weren’t scowling at me in disgust said afterwards.

Not surprisingly, the most controversial and heated exchanges were on the topic of racial profiling (except when I crankily dismissed the whole concept of “youth rights” and some patchouli-soaked girl screamed “bullsh*t!” and booed at me).

The most interesting part of the discussion came up in the comparison of racial profiling to affirmative action. My defense of racial profiling rested on my view that race is a legitimate factor for police to take into account — along with other factors — when making a judgment call.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe anyone should be stopped or harassed or anything like that solely because of his race, ethnicity, etc. But cops — who understand the real world, and the workings of actual neighborhoods — should not be expected to ignore their real-world experiences. They shouldn’t be looking for white suspects if witnesses IDed a black guy, for example. Cops should pay more attention to a lone black (or white) teenager in a store prone to shoplifters than they should to old black (or white) ladies.

Now, Ms. Strossen rejects using race in such ways. But, in her defense of affirmative action, Ms. Strossen believes the exact opposite. College administrators, she argues, certainly should take race into account when weighing the comparative “merits” of prospective students. She asked incredulously: Should they take everything — grades, extracurricular activities etc — into account but ignore race entirely? Hmmm.

It’s odd: The premises of affirmative action and racial profiling are almost identical. Liberals assure us that crime is caused by such “root causes” as poverty, a dearth of educational opportunities, etc. They also say that affirmative action is designed largely to cure these social ailments in the African-American community because they suffer disproportionately from poverty, poor education, etc.

That’s all consistent, I guess. But they also say that race has no correlation to crime. Huh? If poverty and all the rest cause crime and blacks are disproportionately poor, why is it inconceivable or unconscionable to suggest that blacks (young black men, actually) are disproportionately likely to commit crimes? Moreover, why should the state be encouraged to discriminate in favor of race when it comes to college admissions or hiring practices but be denounced when it does the same when it comes to protecting the public (particularly the black public since African Americans are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime)? After all, public safety is a higher and more concrete public good than the nebulous and often meaningless concept of “diversity.”

Targeting Terrorists

But as interesting an academic discussion as this may or may not be, it’s rendered moot by the comparatively obvious need to take race or, more specifically, ethnicity into account when discussing the war on terrorism.

Let’s look at the morning papers. The Justice Department has announced it wants to talk to some 5,000 people about the September 11 attack. These interviews will be entirely voluntary — in other words, none of these 5,000 people are being charged or coercively interrogated. They’re being asked for help.

Now, it just so happens that most of these people are men, of Middle Eastern descent, and between the ages of 18 and 35. Also, most of them have made the list because they’ve traveled to one of 20 or so countries where al Qaeda is up and running. This has made Nadine’s colleagues and sympathizers very concerned.

“This sort of dragnet approach is most likely to magnify fears about racial and ethnic profiling,” announced Steven Shapiro, the National Legal Director of the ACLU. “This effort strikes me as incredibly overbroad and very similar to the racial profiling of young black men,” David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center tells USA Today. “In this case, whatever kind of list is developed is certain to include an overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern men.”

An overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern men! How could that be? After all, of the 19 hijackers on September 11, only a mere 100% of them were of Middle Eastern descent. Of the known members of al Qaeda — the terrorist network responsible for the attack — barely 100% of the leadership hails from the Middle East. Meanwhile the rank-and-file of that organization is a piddling 100% Middle Eastern as well.

And despite all of this, it is unlikely that the FBI will be questioning Amish children or Japanese old ladies. It’s a scandal I tell you.

But it’s not a new one. When Timothy Edgar of the ACLU testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last month, he bemoaned the fact that “virtually every secret evidence case that has come to public attention (since Sept 11) has involved a Muslim or an Arab, raising the specter of racial profiling.”

When the Justice Department released its revised list of “Most Wanted” criminals a few weeks ago, all of the people on the list were from the Middle East. Hussein Amin, a widely quoted Islamic intellectual and former Egyptian Ambassador to Algeria, responded, “Why pick on Arabs? Are there no South Americans, Irish, Serbs, Japanese among the most wanted?” He told the Reuters news agency, “This will increase the bitterness people here feel against the West.”

George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University, had similar complaints. Pointing to the pictures of the Arab criminals, Joffe noted, “All of the indicators, the simplifiers — the head dress, the beards, the appearance — all indicate a particular group, associated with a particular culture. All this goes against the attempts by the U.S. administration to de-demonize Islam.” I’ll have whatever these guys are drinking.

Yes, it’s a miserable shame there aren’t more terrorist organizations that “look like America.” If only “Up With People” would start blowing up buildings. And yes, the Egyptian ambassador and the ACLU should be applauded for their dedication to diversity. But, look: As I’ve said before (even last night), not all Middle Easterners are terrorists, but in this context all terrorists are from the Middle East (it’s sort of like that whole squares and rhomboids thing they taught us in geometry class). What seems to bother the civil libertarians is not that Middle Easterners are being interviewed, but that the people being interviewed are disproportionately Middle Eastern. Frontload the Mormon Tabernacle Choir into the mix and they’ll calm down.

Al Qaeda is an explicitly Middle Eastern, explicitly Muslim organization explicitly dedicated to fighting Americans, Europeans, Christians, and Jews. So it is unlikely that a lot of blue-eyed Finns from Minnesota or Jewish kids from Ohio will have a lot of helpful information about what al Qaeda’s up to. But hey, if Thorsten Jurgenson of St. Paul or little Jeremy Bernstein of Shaker Heights has been flying back and forth to Kabul under shady circumstances, by all means the FBI should chat with them. But in the meantime please don’t tell me that John Ashcroft has to behave like a college-admissions counselor, constantly trying to maximize diversity, even on his list of suspects.


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