Thursday, August 04, 2005

You can't fight terrorism with racism... can you?

Colbert King has an interesting column denouncing the calls by Krauthammer and others to use racial profiling in the hunt for terrorists. While I do not have a strong position on the issue, I do have some observations about King's arguments.

He relies heavily on pragmatic arguments, many of which seem to be weaker than he thinks. He is worried that profiling would miss other potential bombers: the Rudolphs and the McVeighs, as well as IRA bombers and Chechen terrorists (???). Setting aside those last two examples as seemingly irrelevant to America, we can think about the more serious Rudolph/McVeigh point. Obviously, the threat from such homegrown terrorists isn't zero; but nor does racial profiling mean that zero attention will be paid to anyone outside of the targeted group. When a particular group presents a disproportionate danger, there is an intuitive case for devoting a disproportionate amount of resources to monitoring it.

King also complains that cops won't be good at telling Arabs from non-Arabs and old people from young people. But the imperfection of the system surely doesn't condemn it entirely; if you admit the general point that it's good not to search grandma if she's over sixty, then it might well be good to try to accomplish that, even if you get some 62 year olds and let some 58 year olds go. Similarly, even if mistakes are made in trying to identify the members of the targeted ethnic or religious group, the results might still be better than in random searches.

King also notes that these policies would cause anger and estrangement (and presumably produce more terrorism). This seems plausible, though it isn't clear that the increase in terrorism would offset the additional security that the profiling might provide. Also, relying on this argument alone totally dodges the question of whether people would be right to get angry at the policy (the sort of question opinion columnists are supposed to help us out with).

Anyway, my criticism of King's pragmatic arguments does not mean that I disagree with them, only that I'm not completely persuaded by them. The more interesting question, to me, is whether racial profiling would be justified if it did make us safer. Would a policy of profiling that substantially reduced the risk of terrorism still be "insulting, offensive and... racist"? King ducks that question, perhaps because it quite hard.

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