In the wake of recent events like the Arkansas recruiting station shooting, the shootings at Fort Hood and the failed bombing of Northwestern Flight 253, many conservative politicians are calling for the government to expand the use of racial profiling for the evaluation of airline passengers entering the United States.
With all three events either being claimed by Al Qaeda or for the purpose of holding Americans responsible for atrocities committed in Iraq or Afghanistan, many are feeling insecure and afraid. No wonder politicians like Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) are calling upon Congress and the president to do more about security and expand the use of ethnic profiling.
In many cases, people’s fears are being directed toward the Muslim community. This new call for racial and ethnic profiling forces Baptist and Christian ethicists to seriously evaluate the impact of this practice upon society in order to ensure that the majority’s fear does not create tyranny for the minority.
The debate over racial profiling is argued in two arenas. One is ideological while the other is pragmatic. On ideological grounds, the practice exists between the continuum of absolute security and absolute freedom or liberty. One can never hold both absolutely. In a democratic social contract, one must give up personal freedom in order to have consistent security.
The questions for ethicists are how much liberty can be given up and how are those discriminated against in the name of security compensated for their troubles. In our current political environment, few are taking a hard look at the delicate ideological process of keeping security and liberty in mutual check. We operate based upon fear and anger without considering the effectiveness of policy.
In addition to the ideological arena, ethicists need to consider the pragmatic consequences of ethnic profiling. On the one side, those in favor argue for the need for security and the efficiency of using profiles. The reasoning is simplistic. If all Islamic terrorists are Muslims, then let us look at people who look like Muslims or people who behave like terrorists, whatever that is.
Even if this type of argument seems compelling for some, it behooves us to question the validity of the claim. Does ethnic profiling make us safer? The truth of the matter is that profiling only makes us safer in the short run – or more accurately, it makes us feel safer at the expense of others. In the long run, dependence on profiles opens the door for future attacks as terrorists understand the profile and seek to bypass it.
In addition to the problem of stereotyping, one should question the effectiveness of profiling. One might assume that by focusing on and screening Muslims, it would make the search for terrorists more effective. This is not necessarily the case. By focusing on a specific ethnic profile, law enforcement is distracted from the larger search or may use too many precious resources on upstanding citizens.
One example of this occurred last August when authorities detained and questioned Shah Rukh Khan for more than an hour because his name was similar to someone on the terrorist watch list. The events would be tragic if they had not been filled with so much irony. Khan is the internationally known Bollywood actor who is staring in the upcoming film “My Name is Khan” – the story of an autistic Muslim immigrant who travels across the country and is forced to negotiate the racial tensions of a post 9/11 America. How much time and money are wasted in unproductive screenings, which could be put to better use?
What racial and ethnic profiling does do is encourage a system that discriminates and reinforces stereotypes, while behaviorist profiling models are based on what a subject does. Ethnic and racial profiling looks at who or what you are, which is always arbitrary. Just like the racial profiling that has plagued the American criminal justice system for decades, the screening of terrorists does the same thing. It separates us from those we do not know or understand. It creates an “Us versus Them” mentality. This perspective encourages the abuse of those who are not “like us.”
Worst of all, racial and ethnic profiling attacks the very nature of our democratic society. While it might give us a false sense of security, it damages the moral genetic code of our society, which reminds us that we are equal and that each member deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
Once the use of stereotyping damages our common DNA, it will replicate itself like a cancer until one day the power structure will change and those now in power will find themselves the subject of racial profiling. It is this mutual respect that ensures our future security.
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.