Stereotyping creates false sense of safety

January 20, 2002

Should airports engage in terrorist profiling?

Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan says "No: Stereotyping creates false sense of safety; focus instead on behavior."

By Kary L. Moss / Special to The Detroit News

As the nation tries to find the best ways to improve airport security, it is crucial that we resist grabbing onto strategies that only create a sense of false security but not real security. Racial profiling is a key example.

In a widely reported incident shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks for which it later apologized to the ACLU, Northwest Airlines allowed passengers to persuade airline personnel to remove four men of Middle Eastern descent from a flight.

This past week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim woman at O'Hare International Airport who was singled out and searched because she was wearing traditional Muslim head covering. Recently, a Secret Service agent was removed from a plane because of his ethnicity.

These incidents raise troubling legal and moral questions about how far we are willing to go to increase airport safety. Effective profiling at airports should rest on the behavior of passengers, including the purchasing of one-way tickets, payment methods, date of purchase and other actions, not simply on race and ethnicity.

Many now feel it is acceptable to include a person's place of origin, given that we know people from certain Middle Eastern countries are determined to commit violence in this country.

For those who argue that it is better to be safe than sorry, it is important to recognize that racial profiling in general has been shown to be very ineffective. Look, for example, at the numbers of people of Middle Eastern descent in this country -- more than 6 million people have some connection by descent or religion with Arabs or Islam. But most of the Muslims in the world are not Arabic. So, what exactly are we looking for if we profile Arabs or Muslims? Last name? Skin color? Dress? Men only?

What about those who do not fit the profile but may intend to commit terrorist acts as has been reported as happening several times in the last months. Focusing law enforcement scrutiny in one direction will divert resources from people who may otherwise trigger attention.

As University of Toledo Law School Professor David Harris has pointed out, when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration used racial profiling against African Americans, Latinos and other minorities in the 1980s, the success rates of searches that uncovered evidence of crimes were lower for minorities than for whites.

There are concrete steps to improve airport security at no cost to civil liberties. It is imperative that greater oversight be placed on those companies that hire airport security personnel. Argenbright Holdings, Ltd., the nation's largest provider of airport security services, has admitted it violated terms of probation that had been part of its 2000 conviction for falsifying records, and has continued to hire and employ people with criminal backgrounds. Low wages have exacerbated the problem of attracting skilled people to these jobs. The airport security bill, which mandates hiring 28,000 federal employees to screen passengers and baggage, still provides ample room for private companies to continue this status quo.

We support many additional security measures with proven effectiveness, such as increased screening of and training for airport security personnel, strict control of secured areas of airports and luggage matching of all passengers. We also support using biometric identification techniques (such as iris scans or digital fingerprints) to identify and authenticate airport personnel working in secured areas of airports.

The United States serves as a model of freedom. Individuals are free to practice their respective religions, free to speak their minds and free to travel. People also have a right to expect to be treated equally regardless of one's color, religion or nationality. Let's not travel down the road that panders to prejudice and fear; let's focus on a common goal that protects security and champions freedom.

Kary L. Moss is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan.


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