The Christmas Day attempted bombing aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, thankfully disrupted, has set into motion vehement calls for religious profiling and misguided policies that do little to protect our nation.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) last week implemented new guidelines that require travelers from 13 Muslim-majority nations and Cuba to go through additional security checks before flying. The guidelines are a form of back-door profiling and will target American Muslims looking to reconnect with relatives in those countries or traveling to Mecca to perform religious rites.
But before we debate the effectiveness and legality of profiling, let’s step back and ponder what went wrong in the hours and days leading up to the attempted bombing.
Existing security procedures failed to catch alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, although behavior profiling – a legitimate tool – would have worked. For instance, Abdulmuttallab’s father had become concerned about his activities and reported him to Nigerian and American authorities. His name was then added to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center’s watch list, but to no avail. He reportedly bought a one-way ticket with cash and had no checked luggage – both red flags. He was also, to Americans’ shock and dismay, able to bring a powerful PETN explosive on board.
President Obama said that the security system failed in “a potentially disastrous way” and previously said proper intelligence-sharing before the bombing wouldn’t have allowed Abdulmuttallab to board the plane.
In the face of this security system failure, those who jump to advocate racial and religious profiling are either shortsighted, or are seeking to exploit fear of Muslims and give a false sense of security.
Simply put, racial and religious profiling does not work. How can it?
For one thing, there is no one profile of a Muslim or Muslim American. Muslims hail from all races and backgrounds – Caucasian, black and every shade of color in between. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Arabs are a minority of the Muslim population worldwide – 18 percent. Middle-Eastern Jewish and Christian minorities would falsely fit the profile too.
Even extremists do not fit a profile. The hijackers behind the Sept. 11 attacks were clean-shaven and frequented night clubs. Al-Qaida member Adam Gadahn, who wears a beard and a turban, is Caucasian and has Jewish roots. Jose Padilla – convicted of aiding terrorists – is Latino. And would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid is half-English, half-Jamaican.
The argument generally made in favor of profiling states: It wasn’t some Swedish grandma who committed terrorist acts. True, but what is the profile of a terrorist when we know they come in all ages, races, and nationalities?
Even the Bush-era Justice Department acknowledged that profiling is not an effective law enforcement tool, and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview that the Christmas day bombing “illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling.”
Moreover, profiling is an insult to the basic freedoms granted to all Americans by our time-honored Constitution. Are we going to let the terrorists make us abandon the freedoms our country was founded upon?
The right way to protect our nation is by conducting a thorough assessment of our security procedures, address the holes in our security system and revamp ineffective and outdated policies. For instance, the infamous Counterterrorism Center’s watch list of more than 500,000 names, including Abdulmuttallab’s name, is ineffective and must be cleaned up. Hurdles to proper and timely information-sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be dealt with.
Profiling is counterproductive and serves to alienate American Muslims, who constitute one of the first lines of defense in protecting our homeland.
Muslims and Islam have been part of America’s patchwork heritage for the past 200-plus years. Over the years, Muslim Americans have stepped up to the plate and answered the call of duty by working with and in law enforcement agencies around the country and serving in the Armed Forces.
In fact, a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center offers a pretty encouraging picture of the state of American Muslims. Titled, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” the Pew report concluded that American Muslims are basically well integrated into the fabric of the American society, consider it a land of opportunity, believe hard work leads to success and are content with their lives.
So, let’s do the right thing by advocating good security, not profiling.
Hussam Ayloush is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area, headquartered in Anaheim.