Only smart profiling makes sense

August 23, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Since the London terrorist bombings in July, a debate has been rekindled about "common-sense profiling." I hope such a thing still is possible.

In the aftershock of 9/11, profiling ran amok in several highly publicized incidents. For example, the news media and civil libertarians reported episodes in which pilots or passengers were refusing to fly with people they thought looked as if they might be terrorists simply because of their dark complexions and features.

The debate returned after the July bombings in London, particularly in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Police Department announced random searches of bags and packages carried by subway passengers. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the city, arguing that random baggage searches without cause are unlawful, unconstitutional, open the door to racial profiling of Middle Easterners and Arabs and do little to stop determined terrorists.

The phrase "without cause" is important. Before you stop somebody for any reason under our constitutional system of laws, you almost always need to have what lawyers call "probable cause." You need a better reason than skin color or religious attire to stop or otherwise detain someone for a search or questioning. You need, at least, to see some sort of odd behavior or a suspicious-looking package.

So, here's my uncommon idea of common sense: Profiling is a fact of life, but there's smart profiling and there's stupid profiling.

Stupid profiling is based on race or ethnicity alone. Public defenders have offered me examples of cases they easily were able to get thrown out of court simply because the arresting officers didn't realize that seeing "two male Negroes sitting in a car" was not probable cause to stop and search the two male Negroes.

Besides, whatever profile that's developed for how a terrorist looks, terrorists will find ways to get around it. We should not expect terrorists to be morons just because, for example, Richard Reid showed glaring ineptitude at setting off his own shoe-bombs.

The long, sad experience of terrorism in Israel, among other countries, shows that dedicated insurgencies will recruit women and children to plant bombs or carry weapons, if that's what it takes to slip past the preconceived notions of profilers. Robert S. Leiken, director of the immigration and national security program at the Nixon Center, reports that Islamist terrorist groups already have been seeking to recruit non-Arab Europeans to fool profilers.

It is not practical to subject all of the bus and train passengers in our cities to bomb-sniffing dogs or metal detectors. At best, police have mere seconds to make a judgment call that can save or take lives. The wrong call, as London police recently showed, can lead to terrorists taking a life or police taking an innocent life, like the shooting of the Brazilian man who was killed by London police.

The quest for sensible profiling is being joined by politicians like New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, who would allow racial profiling for bag searches, against Mr. Bloomberg's wishes. New York City Councilman James Oddo, a Republican, has called for a similar resolution. Neither measure has much chance of passing, but both raise questions that need to be asked in the beginning of a serious debate.

We should learn from Israel and other countries that have learned through hard-fought experience how to look beyond mere ethnicity to stop terrorists in their tracks.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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