Sunday, July 31, 2005

# Posted 9:38 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

RACIAL PROFILING: IS THERE ANY OTHER CHOICE? An outraged Colbert King argues that "You Can't Fight Terrorism With Racism". King explicitly takes down the arguments made by Charles Krauthammer, Paul Sperry and Haim Watzman in recent columns on the WaPo and NYT op-ed pages.

Although I don't have statistics to back this up, my sense is that this sort of direct response to other pundits has become far more common in the age of the blogosphere precisely because the blogosphere places a premium on engaging others rather than acting as if one's own opinions are the only ones that exist.

In fact, I was hoping that the online version of King's column would include hyperlinks to the three columns he mentions by name, even though two of them were published in a competing newspaper. Alas it isn't so. It would seem that the blogosphere still stands alone in its ability to provide you with instant access to multiple, clashing perspectives on a single issue.

But lets get back to the issue at hand: racial profiling of terrorists. I agree with King that Paul Sperry entirely avoids the moral issues raised by racial profiling, which he ardently supports as an alternative to the "politically correct suicide" of nonsensical random searches on the New York subway system. Conversely, King totally avoids the utilitarian issues addressed by Sperry. After all, when innocent lives are on the line, how dare anyone suggest that the police should waste their time patting down random grandmothers?

To his credit, Charles Krauthammer approaches the issue from an ethical perspective but provides an unsatisfactory answer. Krauthammer writes that:
We recoil from concentrating bag checks on men who might fit this description. Well, if that is impossible for us to do, then let's work backward. Eliminate classes of people who are obviously not suspects.
Krauthammer then ticks off the list of unthreatening ethnic groups -- Scandinavians, East Asians, etc. -- who don't need to be singled. What are we left with? Young Arab men and a few others.

The problem with Krauthammer's logic is that it still substitutes collective, ethnically-oriented judgment for the evidence-based judgment of individuals. That is exactly the kind of judgment that most conservatives reject when it comes to issues such as affirmative action. Now one might argue that the imperatives of the War on Terror necessitate a compromise of such ideals. But that isn't what Krauthammer argues.

For a sophisticated argument to that effect, the place to turn is this post from Reihan Salam. Although I am hesitant to engage in racial profiling myself, I think it is quite probable that Reihan has written about this subject so insightfully because he is one of the young Muslim males who will inevitably be singled out for additional scrutiny if racial profiling becames an accepted weapon in the struggle for homeland security.

Reihan begins by quoting the words of Tunku Varadarajan, an editor at the WSJ who will also be singled out if racial profiling takes hold in New York. Varadarajan -- a Hindu, not a Muslim -- writes:
Do I like being profiled? Of course not. But my displeasure is yet another manifestation of the extraordinary power of terrorism. I am not being profiled because of racism but rather because Islamist fanatics have declared war on my society. They are the dark power that leads me to an experience in which my individuality is corroded. This is tragic; but it strengthens my resolve to support the war that seeks to destroy terrorism.
I endorse this argument fully, even though Varadarajan's phrasing leaves the impression that the West has no agency and simply must engage in profiling because of our moral obligation to fight terror.

Reihan also agrees with Varadarajan's logic and then recounts a pair of anecdotes that hint at the emotional and psychological price that must be paid by those who will be subject to profiling. The R-dog concludes that
"Reassuring Reihan" shouldn't be a priority. I do care about using our collecti[ve] resources wisely, and preserving an open society. In the end, I welcome increased scrutiny. It means that law enforcement is doing its job. That said, I worry about what will happen when attacks are perpetrated by "unusual suspects," and I hope we're prepared.
Which brings us back to Colbert King. He is also concerned unusual suspects of the Timothy McVeigh or John Walker Lindh vintage. But it's not as if the cops are going to ignore suspicious white people just because they know that South Asian and Arab males are the most likely perps.

Yes, there is a danger that a focus on South Asian and Arab males will endow security officers with a false sense of confidence that will allow other terrorists to go unnoticed. But the danger of such false confidence pales in comparison to the ridiculousness of subjecting all ethnicities, ages and genders to equal scrutiny.

The stakes in this debate are life and death. Thus I believe it is incumbent on those who oppose racial profiling to identify an workable alternative to racial profiling before they demand that it be stopped. Until such an alternative is identified, I think that it is incumbent upon King and others to recognize, as Tunku Varadarajan does, that it is not American racism but Al Qaeda that has forced us to confront that unpleasant choice.

And perhaps King will even learn to emulate Reihan's wise example of welcoming such additional scrutiny because it makes us all safer at minimal cost.
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