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Counterterrorism: Racial Profiling


During these weeks, we're conducting several conversations about profiling, the decisions that law enforcement and security personnel need to make about who they may stop to search or question, not only at airports but increasingly in subways and on streets. What measures are most justified and effective and what is the price to civil liberties? This week we're speaking with James Zogby, who's president of the Arab American Institute and joins us in our studios.

Mr. Zogby, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JAMES ZOGBY (President, Arab American Institute): Thank you.

SIMON: Help us understand what it's like for young Arab-American males to walk into an airport, take a bus.

Mr. ZOGBY: Well, after the experience that we had especially in the mid-'90s when we actually sent teams out to airports and found that dark-skinned people, people with beards, women who were covered, were randomly taken out of lines and baggage was searched. People were treated in humiliating manners. And it created, I think, fear. It created suspicion, too. I mean, if you were one of those people subject to that treatment and you got on the plane, other passengers looked at you as if you were somehow taboo. We got rulings in the late '90s outlawing that behavior. It started again after 9/11. And thank God, Norm Mineta, the secretary of Transportation, was in the position that he was in, because he made it very clear that the guidelines were such that it was illegal to do that.

SIMON: Are there certain kinds of--profiling is, I think, not exactly the term I mean--but certain--I don't know, certain tips as to behavior...

Mr. ZOGBY: Sure.

SIMON: ...that you think could be useful?

Mr. ZOGBY: Look, I think profiling is misunderstood. Profiling is, of course, acceptable; not only acceptable, but it is the only way sometimes for an investigation to be carried out. It's what is--what do you mean by profiling? Specifically, when the Justice Department issued guidelines on profiling, what they said was that law enforcement could establish a profile as part of an investigation. The profile had to include multiple characteristics, and race and ethnicity could not be the sole or defining determinant. The defining determinant had to be based on behavior. If your name was Mohamad, the pilot couldn't order you off the plane, as we had instances of that kind of behavior occurring where the pilot would simply look at the manifest and he'd say, `This guy Mohamad in seat 11, if he's not moved back to seat 45 in that row, I'm not going to take off.' And in some cases, they would simply take three dark-looking people who turned out, in one instance, to be Hispanic or Indian and took them off the plane. There were dozens of instances like that after 9/11.

SIMON: I don't want to be insensitive to...

Mr. ZOGBY: Sure.

SIMON: ...anything that happened to somebody, but I'm struck by the fact that you say dozens of instances occurred.

Mr. ZOGBY: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: When you consider the great pain under which the country was laboring after 9/11, I must tell you, there's a part of me that's impressed by hearing dozens.

Mr. ZOGBY: Oh, I was, too. I mean, I--you know, we feared that the backlash should be so great that there could have been something much worse.

SIMON: As you know, there are many Americans who, when they see somebody's elderly white-haired grandmother with the walker get taken side for special wanding or a two-year-old child, who just find that comical, a waste of resources.

Mr. ZOGBY: Sure. The bigger waste of resources, of course, though, would be anyone dark. Let's understand two things here. One is if you take all the dark-skinned people, law enforcement resources simply cannot be stretched. You simply cannot pull everybody dark. You can't make a rule--we did have a rule like that back in the South where everybody dark go in the back. It won't work. Number two, the idea of random is that it creates a situation so unpredictable that terrorists cannot take advantage of the fact that they're only going to go after the dark guy. Randomness ensures that there is a pattern to the search that puts everyone at the point of coming under scrutiny. If you break the randomness, because in this case it's an old lady, then you break the procedure. The line between individual freedom and our security has to be maintained. That defines us as Americans. Can we strive for greater security? Yes, we can.

SIMON: Mr. Zogby, thanks very much.

Mr. ZOGBY: Thank you.

SIMON: James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.