In the wake of last week's foiled terrorist plot to blow up 10 U.S. jetliners flying between Britain and the United States, sensible people are reconsidering our government's stubborn opposition to profiling.
Among the sensible elsewhere are officials of the British Department for Transport, who are proposing ethnic profiling as a means of more effectively identifying potential terrorists. The predictable chorus of opposition has chimed in on cue.
The Muslim Council of Britain has warned the government to think "very carefully," saying that including "behavioral pattern recognition" in passenger profiling would lead to discrimination. A spokesman for the council said, "Before some kind of religious profiling is introduced, a case has to be made." Challenge accepted.
Most terrorist acts of the past several decades have been perpetrated by Muslim men between the ages of 17 and 40. A complete list would fill this space, but following is a partial Islamic terrorist resume:
Eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics (1972); U.S. Marine barracks blown up in Beirut (1983), Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacked and elderly, disabled American passenger killed (1985); TWA Flight 847 hijacked (1985); Pan Am Flight 103 bombed (1988); World Trade Center bombed (1993); U.S. embassies bombed in Kenya and Tanzania (1998); USS Cole bombed (2000); Sept. 11, 2001; Madrid and London train bombings (2004 and 2005).
Yet we are torn. Profiling seems both un-American and dangerous in an era of slippery slopes. The paranoid leap is that detention camps are just around the bend. Thus, instead of deciding to closely scrutinize airline passengers who fit the description of a likely perpetrator - based not on bigotry, but on evidence, history and common sense - we frisk the elderly and confiscate toddlers' sippy cups.
Critics of profiling insist that focusing on one group will distract us from other possible terrorists - presumably all those Baptist grandmothers recently converted to Islam. They also invariably point to Timothy McVeigh, our own homegrown terrorist who blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City. As if one white-bred misfit - or the occasional Caucasian Muslim - cancels out 35 years of Middle Eastern terrorists invoking Muhammad.
For a nation that laments its lapse in dot-connecting before 9-11, we are curiously blind when it comes to dealing honestly with certain people of a certain sort. Profiling isn't aimed at demonizing Muslims; it's aimed at saving lives, including Muslims.
We learned from investigators of the foiled London-based plot that Muslims played a key role in busting the conspirators, for which the world is grateful. But the idea that profiling young males of Asian or Middle Eastern descent now would alienate those who heretofore had been helpful, as some have argued, presumes that Muslims have no interest in self-preservation.
Or that they're all so belligerently ethnocentric that they'll cease cooperating if airport security officials suddenly start behaving competently.
Identifying potential terrorists is complicated by their sheer numbers in places like Britain, where between 16,000 and 18,000 Muslims are suspected to be Islamic extremists, according to Britain's MI5 counterterrorism unit. How do you track 15,000 people? You don't.
But we can focus energies and resources where plausible, including at airports where profilers are invited to be polite and discreet. And we can listen to sensible Muslims like Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the al-Arabiya news channel, who wrote in the Arab News two years ago what our own officials struggle to say:
"It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims. ... We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women."
And the West cannot survive if we continue to avert our eyes from the obvious. On the legal questions, profiling has at least one notable defender - John Banzhaf, the George Washington University public interest law professor best known for taking on tobacco and fast food.
Banzhaf argues that racial profiling is constitutional if done in accordance with U.S. Supreme Court guidelines that ethnicity not be the sole criteria. Other considerations for potential hijackers might be age, gender, behavior or clothing. He also notes that courts have upheld using race/ethnicity to further "compelling state interest," as in considering race for college admissions.
"Obviously, the government's interest in protecting the lives of thousands of citizens from a major terrorist attack is at least as 'compelling' as a better college education," he says.
For the past several years, Banzhaf has been a pain in the neck to the tobacco and fast food industries. Let's hope he proves equally troublesome to the terrorists among us.