Up through the early morning hours of September 11th, denunciation of the ethnic profiling of suspects by the police looked well on its way to becoming a near-universal component of political stump speeches, on a par with praise for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s. To be sure, the controversy was somewhat muted by the notable fact that almost no one in America, including its erstwhile practitioners, would publicly defend the practice; but after all, denunciations of the indefensible are the stuff of regular political rhetoric.
But in the wondrous tradition of the sudden transformations found in Orwell’s 1984, policies which had been indefensible at dawn had become unassailable by dusk, and ethnic profiling, generally under that very same unchanged name, soon became the proposed governmental response of choice for the domestic front of the Terrorism War. Our political leaders thus proved that what they perhaps lacked in courage and political consistency, they more than made up for in ideological agility and sheer audacity, together with their fellow-traveling pundits.
Some of these principled individuals soon suggested that all the millions of individuals of Middle-Eastern Muslim background be banned from flying on planes, and that the hundreds of thousands of non- citizens among them be summarily deported back to their countries of origin. And the august editorial pages of the New York Times gave that notorious defender of all civil liberties, howsoever slight, attorney Alan Dershowitz, a powerful platform to demand the immediate introduction of a national identity card, while also proposing the institutionalization of governmental torture.
Those who had never joined the chorus of blanket opposition to ethnic profiling—myself included—should see little need to become new and unabashed cheerleaders for that policy following September 11th. Instead, all decisions regarding this controversial law enforcement technique should always be made on a case-by-case basis using a standard of reasonableness. For example, while very little special suspicion should attach to a middle-aged Arab-American couple preparing to board a vacation flight with their three small children, much more scrutiny should be given to a group of five young and scruffy-looking Middle-Eastern men wearing “Death to America!” tee-shirts.
But the best means of ensuring that ethnic profiling is not taken too far or used in too extreme or unreasonable a fashion is to apply it broadly and fairly, based on objective standards of threat and probability, rather than selectively, only against politically weak or unpopular groups. Hence the theme of my certainly quite controversial opinion piece below, which was unsurprisingly passed over by several editors, both liberal and conservative, before finding a place last week in the courageously and eclectically liberal Salon.com.
- “Rounding Up Arabs, blacks, and Jews”
Ron Unz, Salon.com, December 6, 2001