2001-09-29 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk by Howard Schwach

From the Editor’s Desk by Howard Schwach

The term "racial profiling" has become anathema to Americans of all stripes, and rightfully so.

The idea that people could be targeted for closer scrutiny by law enforcement simply because of what they are rather than what they do is repugnant.


In light of what happened just two weeks ago right here in Manhattan, let’s take a look at a scenario that might just become a chilling test case in the war between political correctness and common sense.

Several Arab males approach an airport boarding gate. The plane they are boarding is scheduled for a long, cross-country flight. They are not openly traveling together. In fact, they seem to be going to great lengths to remain isolated from each other. They all, however, have some elements in common. They all have taken flight training, as evidenced by credentials in their carry-on luggage. None of them has more than one piece of carry-on luggage. Each of them has purchased a one-way ticket in cash.

You are a security agent watching the boarding ramp. What do you do?

Do you pull them aside and search them for a box cutter or other edged weapon? Do you hold them until they have proven their identity, an identity that matches the documents they are carrying? Do you let them pass, because stopping them would be considered "racial profiling?" Do you take them into another room, strip search them and interrogate them sufficiently so that they miss their plane? Do you arrest them and turn them into the FBI for vetting?

I know what I would do. Since each of the men fits perfectly the profile of those who hijacked the four planes and then killed perhaps 6,000 people, I would feel comfortable about any of the actions above with the exception of allowing them to get on the plane.

In the strict sense of the term, I would therefore be "racial profiling."

I would also be using my common sense.

And there’s the rub, the $64 thousand question that needs to be answered and answered soon.

How do we balance the common sense protections that we need to fight the war we are in with terrorism with the very real need for individual rights that have become the mantra of this nation?

Where is the balance between security and liberty?

A new list of proposals made by Attorney General John Ashcroft has focused the controversy.

Ashcroft wants a conservative wish list of racial profiling, detaining illegal immigrants, and proposals for increased wiretapping of those perceived to be involved with terrorism.

Those proposals have civil rights proponents apoplectic.

"I don’t think that anything has changed at all," says a New York Civil Rights lawyer, Richard Emery. "Racial profiling is still anathema in our system."

Not everybody agrees with Emery, however.

"The events of September 11 are going to make it more difficult to get rid of racial profiling," Randall Kennedy, a professor at the Harvard Law School says. "That is true both at the street level – what police actually do – and at the formal level in the courts. Judges are going to say, ‘I thought something before, but what are you going to do in the face of the current circumstance."

"Investigating means following hunches," says Charles Fred, another Harvard Law School professor. "The notion about having rules about how those hunches are followed is truly insane."

In a recent court decision in which a young black man wearing gang colors was stopped at a Los Angeles airport because he fit the "profile of a drug courier," a judge ruled, "facts are not to be ignored simply because they are unpleasant,"

I agree, and I think that most Americans, if asked, would agree as well.

I am against racial profiling, but I am for common sense.

If we tie the hands of our law enforcement agents because of some idea that we must be politically correct at any cost, then we have already lost the war that we reluctantly find ourselves fighting.

It is up to us, to We The People. If we have the political will and the individual will to win this war, we will, just as we have in the past. If we do not, if we give in to fear, to notions of fairness that the other side does not harbor, then I fear that we are lost before we start.

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