Politics & Policy

King Folly

Taking Osama bin Laden at his word is a good place to start in fighting terrorism.

Jackson, Ms., September 14, 1964 (AP)–The U.S. Attorney in Mississippi announced today that a cross had been burned outside the Natchez home of Ben and Tillie Smith. “All signs point to the Ku Klux Klan,” said federal prosecutor Ross Hencken, noting that the Smiths had been registering Negro voters. Consistent with the federal government’s ban on racial profiling, Hencken announced that he was ordering the National Guard to stop every fifth driver on Highway 61 between Natchez and Vicksburg to search for the perpetrators. Were the guard to look only at white people, explained Hencken, it would “give a pass to all Negroes,” and suggest that the “rights and freedoms enjoyed by all should be limited to a select group.”

Call it the “Colbert King theory” of antiterror investigation. Washington Post columnist King has accused fellow pundit Charles Krauthammer of racism for suggesting that investigators seeking to find Islamic terrorists should concentrate on “young Muslim men of North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian origin.” King complains that “by eliminating Scandinavians from his list of obvious terror suspects, Krauthammer would have authorities give a pass to all white people.” Krauthammer’s proposal, charges King, is based on the belief that the “rights and freedoms enjoyed by all should be limited to a select group.”

Colbert King’s July 30 rant, “You Can’t Fight Terrorism With Racism,” exemplifies the opinion elite’s hysteria and hypocrisy regarding anything that can be called “profiling.” It is no more “racist” to focus on young Muslim males in an Islamic-terrorist investigation than it is to focus on whites in a Klan investigation. Yet it is doubtful that King would accuse the FBI of unfairly excluding blacks from scrutiny if the bureau didn’t search black Baptist churches for white robes and gasoline after a Klan attack.

Anti-Cop Instincts

The outcry over “profiling” in the defense against Islamic terror is the culmination of a decades-long war against the police. The fundamental premise of that war is that racism lurks beneath most law-enforcement actions. Thus, any time the police try to categorize people to solve or prevent crime, they are doing so out of bigotry. But in order to maintain this position, anti-”profiling” crusaders such as Colbert King or the American Civil Liberties Union must embrace radical skepticism regarding the validity of any generalizations at all. Such skepticism would make not just national security, but reason itself, impossible.

The King-Krauthammer exchange was provoked by the New York Police Department’s recent announcement that it would begin random bag searches on the New York subways. The NYPD started the bag checks after the failed July 21 bombing plot in London. The checks would be random to avoid any accusations of “profiling,” announced Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Charles Krauthammer called the random checks “reflexive and idiotic” in a July 29 Washington Post column. They ignored the “simple statistical fact,” he wrote, that the “overwhelming odds are that the guy bent on blowing up your train traces his origins to the Islamic belt stretching from Mauritania to Indonesia.”

One might add that the relationship between being a Muslim terrorist and being a Muslim is more than a statistical fact, it is a logical tautology. By definition, all Muslim terrorists are Muslims. If Colbert King and the rest of the political elites don’t like this association, they should take their complaint to Osama bin Laden. Until Osama, in deference to Americans’ delicate sensibilities regarding certain minority populations, calls on Jews and Lutherans to join the Islamic jihad against Americans, the police are going to have to work with what he’s given them.

There are, however, no unambiguous physical markers for being a Muslim. So rational Islamic-terror investigators must use a surrogate: apparent national origin. Al Qaeda and other Islamic-terror groups have drawn the vast majority of their members from what Krauthammer calls the “Islamic belt”–the Middle East, Pakistan, and North Africa, where white skin is not indigenous. Does that mean that Islamic-terror investigators are biased against people with darker skin? Of course not. Nor does it mean that antiterror agents should treat every Middle Easterner as a suspect. But they should be allowed to factor in apparent Muslim identity in evaluating whether certain behavior is suspicious. A string of eight Saudi males seeking to purchase large quantities of fertilizer at a garden supply store outside of Las Vegas should raise more questions than if eight Mormon missionaries were to do so.

King draws on two classic anti-cop strategies to discredit the policing consequences of Osama Bin Laden’s fatwa: logic chopping and playing dumb. The generalization that nearly all Islamic terrorists are from the “Islamic belt” is both over- and under-inclusive, he shows. Giving extra scrutiny to young men who appear to be from Africa, says King self-righteously, will also include his two sons. But King’s sons are not terrorists. Hence, the generalization, according to King, is invalid.

Some Perspective, Please

But much police work starts out as over-inclusive, which is why it proceeds along a continuum of suspicion and consequences. ACLU lawsuits notwithstanding, the police cannot always investigate only the actual perpetrators of a crime. If the consequence of a preliminary Islamic-terror profile were arresting someone or throwing him in jail, we should be deeply concerned about whether it is over-inclusive. But if the consequence is getting a little extra eyeballing from a police officer or maybe facing a higher chance of having your bag checked, then our tolerance for over-inclusiveness should be greater, so long as there is a strong rational basis for the generalization. Some perspective, please! No one is talking about locking someone up because of his nationality or religion. All that is being contemplated is giving the New York police the discretion to notice, among a range of possible factors, where a passenger is likely from in deciding whether to request a voluntary bag check. The passenger is free to walk away if he doesn’t want to be checked. The cost of having some innocent subway riders subjected to slightly heightened, but extremely short-lived, scrutiny is trivial compared to the cost of missing a suicide bomber due to a prohibition on noting passengers’ apparent geographic origin.

Colbert King’s examples of the under-inclusiveness of an Islamic-terrorist profile are particularly ludicrous. Looking for apparent Muslim subway bombers would miss Dennis Rader, he says, the recently arrested “bind, torture, kill (BTK)” serial killer from Wichita, as well as abortion-clinic and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph. But Islamic-terror investigators are not seeking serial killers or abortion-clinic bombers, however odious their crimes, they are looking for people who have sworn allegiance to a Muslim crusade against the West. Chechen terrorists, whom King presents triumphantly as the Caucasian trump card against a Middle Eastern profile, are fighting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia; nothing suggests that they have designs on American civilians or symbols of power.

King’s second strategy for discrediting a geographically based Islamic-terror profile is to pretend that it is impossible to “identify a Muslim male of Arab or South Asian origin.” But the odds are that King himself daily believes that he is observing Pakistanis, Koreans, Ethiopians, northern Europeans, Arabs, and Central Americans, rather than an undifferentiable mass of humanity. It is also likely that such provisional identifications are right more often than they are wrong. Because they may be wrong, they should trigger only minimal consequences.

Consistent with his contempt for the police, King doubts whether NYPD officers are smart enough to distinguish between a 60-year-old male and an 18-year-old male. Charles Krauthammer had suggested that at the very least, subway bag checkers eliminate from scrutiny people over 60 and under 13. Sneers King: “The age-60 cutoff is meaningless, too, since subway cops aren’t especially noted for accuracy in pinning down stages of life.” This is preposterous. Most NYPD cops have undoubtedly developed a more heightened awareness of personal detail than your average Washington Post columnist.

In a follow-up offering on August 6, King accuses conservatives of hypocrisy for opposing racial preferences and supporting a Muslim-directed antiterror effort. This charge compares apples and oranges. The Constitution doesn’t ban the government from ever considering nationality, religion, or race; it does require very good reasons for doing so. National security is one of those reasons. True enough, most conservatives do not believe that ensuring racial “diversity” is a sufficient reason to admit underprepared black applicants to highly competitive public colleges over more qualified Asians and whites, or to award a highway contract to a Hispanic-headed cement firm over a non-Hispanic lowest bidder. But just as a counterintelligence effort to find Nazi saboteurs or Russian spies entails taking the nationality of possible suspects into account, stopping Muslim terrorists before they strike necessarily entails taking nationality and likely religion into account to locate the most likely suspects.

Tellingly, King confines his newfound zeal for color-blindness to law enforcement alone: “[I]t is the Constitution that stands against those who would authorize the use of assumptions based on race, ethnicity and religion in law enforcement. It is the Constitution that limits the use of race and ethnicity in law enforcement decisions except in the most extraordinary circumstances” [emphasis added]. Denying someone a contract or a slot in school because of his race or ethnicity remains, in King’s careful phrasing, a wide-open option.

King can imagine only one reason for Krauthammer’s profiling suggestions: Racism. “In Krauthammer’s worldview,” writes King, “it’s all quite simple: Ignore him and his son; suspect me and mine.” So how would King narrow down the search for possible Islamic terrorists? He doesn’t say. The only clear principle from his articles is that the police may not use any sort of generalizations about religion, national origin, or even behavior to target their resources, because every generalization has an exception and because we may not always accurately identify members of a class. That leaves the police with two alternatives: Everyone is a suspect, or no one is a suspect. Both alternatives have the same result: The police do nothing until the next attack. In the meantime, however, no one will cry that his rights have been violated.

And after the next attack, would King, the ACLU, and the New York Times have the police randomly search synagogues and parish churches for leads? A prediction: If the U.S. is attacked again, American law-enforcement authorities will do what the British have already done–unapologetically take Osama bin Laden at his word and look for Muslim suspects. And if the self-appointed rights guardians were ever given responsibility for protecting lives, let’s hope that they would do the same.

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.


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