Profile me, please

January 11, 2002|By David D. Perlmutter

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The man who goes by names as various as Richard C. Reid, Tariq Raja and Abdel Rahim was apparently walking around airports with a huge "I'm suspicious" sign over his head.

French police didn't let him on the first plane he tried to board.

Then he allegedly tried to blow up his Miami-bound plane with explosives in his shoe before it was diverted to Boston.

I look like a terrorist. The resemblance unfortunately has cost me some extra time and bother at airports.

After the tragic -- but avoidable -- events of Sept. 11, I hoped that I would be routinely inconvenienced in the future.

I'm a dark-complexioned male with Mediterranean features and an irreducible 5 o'clock shadow.

My eyes are sensitive to the kind of fluorescent lighting common at airports, so I often wear sunglasses indoors. Except for my name, I fit the profile of a dubious character.

At London's Heathrow airport in the late 1980s, I debarked with about 200 other people from a plane from New York. Before I even hit customs, three plainclothes security officers flashed badges and pulled me into a room.

I was questioned briefly, my passport checked and my hand luggage thoroughly searched.

It took 10 minutes, after which I was released politely but with no apologies.

About 10 other Middle Eastern-looking men had been similarly hustled aside for inspection.

Some were philosophical, others were angry.

One protested, "You are doing this because I don't look English!"

"Right-o, old chap, and it's for our own good," I wanted to tell him.

Public safety is worth a slight hassle. If I resemble a terrorist, then I might just as well bear the consequences.

I now believe profiling could have saved the world.

It seems that perhaps scores of suspicious Middle Eastern men were in the United States engaged in incredibly suspicious activities over several years, conjuring the mass murders of Sept. 11.

Why did only a few people voice suspicion?

Why didn't red flags fly at the FBI?

I blame the bastardized version of political correctness currently fashionable that says you are a horrible racist if you profile anybody.

The fact is, we all profile. The issues are when, why and what are risks if we don't.

Thousands of people would been saved Sept. 11 if somebody had profiled the suicide hijackers.

Dozens of passengers would have been killed aboard the American Airlines flight that carried the alleged shoe bomber, and the culprit would have been people not acting on their suspicions. Who is to blame?

Of course, a terrorist could be a blue-eyed all-American boy like Timothy McVeigh. But the chances are that yesterday, now and for decades to come, hijackers and madmen who gleefully cause mass destruction will look like me and have Middle Eastern names.

Arab-Americans can express their patriotism and our alleged Arab "friends and allies" in the Middle East can show their support by cheerfully volunteering for and putting up with profiling. And airport and airline authorities can show they care about security by simply not allowing incredibly suspicious people to fly at all.

That's a harsh reality, and in this sinister world we can no longer luxuriate in comfortable liberal delusions. The price is not worth the principle.

True, racial or ethnic profiling can lead to outright harassment in which we deny someone a job or a house or hurt them because of their appearance or skin color.

But this is not the same as temporary inconveniences such as an extra check of a passport or a more thorough search of a shaving kit or a shoe.

If you are innocent and the authorities are well-supervised, nobody is harmed; caution is not brutality.

And in a war for the survival of our nation, compromises must be made with our freedoms.

So in the future, profile me, please.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.

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