The Ethics of Profiling

But why is our government so hesitant to trust us? Haven’t we proven our tolerance and magnanimity already? After 9/11, was there any sustained retaliatory violence against Muslims? Is there much concrete anti-Muslim backlash today? Did we put Muslims in concentration camps, as Bruce Willis does in The Siege -- or as FDR did to Japanese-Americans during World War II? I see Muslims every day. I’ve never seen anyone bother or heckle them. By any historical standard, our national reaction to Islamic terrorism has been tame and prudent.

Americans aren’t asking for a green light to discriminate against Muslims. We simply want security officials to stop asking Grandma to take her clothes off at the airport. The government is willfully violating the privacy and liberties of hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens, all out of fear of appearing to undercut our own notions of tolerance and diversity -- notions our adversaries exploit. Such exploitation makes profiling all the more necessary and morally urgent. Al-Qaeda has been known to use men of varying nationalities -- the most recent example, a baby-faced Nigerian -- in order to “throw off” our collective suspicions. By profiling suspected terrorists in an intelligent manner, we are simply keeping pace with al-Qaeda’s deadly trickery.

Profiling does not promote bigotry or ignorance either. To the contrary, profiling helps fight ignorance -- in that it necessitates greater knowledge about the enemy. Profiling requires Americans to become more learned about Islamic terrorism, which is a good thing, an ethical thing. How many Americans, for instance, could tell the difference between a Sunni jihadist and a Shiite jihadist, or between Arabic and Farsi?

Such knowledge is important, particularly for the civilian who must determine whether or not to act in order to prevent an attack. It’s important for citizens to be able to distinguish between a Hezbollah operative and an al-Qaeda operative, to be able to differentiate between an Abu Sayyaf operative and a Jemmah Islamiyah operative. Americans ought to know what would-be suicide bombers look like on the day of martyrdom (they’re usually clean-shaven and wear Western clothing).

When the government encourages a culture that scorns such profiling, we end up with ignoramuses confusing Sikhism with Salafism, accusing Indian Punjabis of being terrorists because they’re brown, wear turbans, and have beards -- and consequently making a mess of it all. In other words, only educated profiling can end racist profiling. It should be encouraged of citizens and institutionalized, in some manner, by the government.