In the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, Americans are debating whether we should adopt ethnic profiling policies that may ensnare thousands of innocent people---Arabs and Muslims---in the government's net, in order to ferret out a relative handful of guilty individuals.
All of America's long legal tradition argues to the contrary, but in the shadow of the death and destruction inflicted upon our greatest city by a small group of Muslim terrorists, more and more Americans are supporting ethnic profiling whether it involves greater scrutiny for Arabs and Muslims at airports, or interviewing 5,000 Muslim men who have entered the country recently, as the FBI has just begun to do.
Prominent conservative commentators, including Ann Coulter, Peggy Noonan and Mona Charen, have endorsed such proposals; some have even suggested mass deportation of individuals from certain Arab countries. American blacks, previously most hostile to ethnic profiling, have become the group most in favor of using Arab ethnicity to screen for potential terrorists.
But is there really a case to be made for subjecting this one group to racial, ethnic and religious profiling, if we oppose such policies when applied to other groups?
Let's consider the numbers. Not even the most alarmist elements of our national security establishment believe that our country contains as many as 1,000 potential Muslim terrorists, and the actual number is likely just a tiny fraction of such a total, probably representing far less than one-tenth of one percent of the adult males of that American population group. Thus, encouraging or allowing airport security officers to scrutinize or investigate passengers of that ethnicity accepts the likelihood that 99.9% of the persons thereby embarrassed or inconvenienced are completely innocent of any crime. In times of national crisis, we must all make sacrifices, and perhaps this policy is temporarily warranted, but it should not be undertaken lightly.
Fairness in policy making, however, would seem to require that we at least consider applying the same kind of racial and ethnic cost-benefit analysis to other situations -- and other more politically powerful groups. While blacks abhor racial profiling, at least as applied to them, and have won over other Americans to support their cause, racial profiling of blacks would likely prevent much more crime than profiling Arabs and Muslims.
Today, over a quarter of adult black males in America have been convicted of some kind of crime, so encouraging police to randomly stop and search young black men walking or driving at night is probably many hundreds of times more likely to catch the guilty than similar scrutiny of young Arab men boarding planes. Similarly, an enormous fraction of the young Hispanic men waiting for day-labor work on city street corners are probably undocumented. So INS sweeps of such individuals would seem just as reasonable as singling out Arab passengers at airports, if our goal is to prevent illegal immigration.
One might correctly point out that Muslim terrorism has the potential to claim many more lives than illegal immigration or street crime. Obviously, policies that allow a few illegal immigrants, muggers or drug dealers to avoid arrest, in the name of fairness to an entire racial or ethnic group, are far less worrisome than ethnicity-blind policies that could lead to the destruction of American cities and the mass murder of thousands. But even using such narrow criteria to defend racial profiling, a close and controversial historical analogy easily comes to mind, from the early decades of our half-century long Cold War with Soviet Russia. Then the suspicious and possibly dangerous characters were Jews, not Muslims or Arabs.
It's an undeniable historical fact that Jews made up an extraordinarily high fraction of America's leading Communist Party members and Communist spies even though the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans were loyal and law-abiding patriotic Americans, just like the vast majority of today's Arab and Muslim Americans. But if the presence of perhaps dozens or even hundreds of terrorists in our midst today leads us to condone official ethnic profiling of all Arabs and Muslims by our government, then we should be equally ready to argue that the government should have officially regarded all American Jews, including my own parents and grandparents, as potential Communist spies during that earlier period, and targeted them for heightened surveillance.
Of course, in the current example, extreme measures to prevent another Sept. 11th can be defended because they could save thousands of American lives. But since the nuclear weapons obtained by Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- one of history's greatest mass-murderers, and America's deadliest enemy -- put millions of American lives and our very nation at risk, any measure taken today would certainly have been equally justified then.
Yet though tiny fringe groups did indeed question the loyalty of America's Jews during the Cold War, no figure of authority even on the extreme right ever did so publicly. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose name is synonymous with extreme anti-Communism, actually appointed a young Jewish aide, Roy Cohn, as his most prominent lieutenant. Similarly, American leaders ensured that both the prosecutors and the judge who sent Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their deaths for spying were themselves Jewish.
Treating American Jews as loyal until otherwise indicated was probably based on a mixture of decency and common sense. If merely one in a thousand or fewer American Jews were Communist traitors, targeting all Jews for government investigation might have created far more new security risks than have caught existing ones. This very same argument should apply to our millions of loyal Arab- and Muslim-Americans.
In fact, since Muslims were one of the few ethnic minorities in America to lean Republican during this last election, surely it would not be difficult for Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge or Attorney General John Ashcroft to find members of that minority to serve prominently in their ongoing efforts to combat domestic terrorism. Their participation could make all Americans feel better about whatever measures are needed in that fight.
But in the meantime, intellectual honesty requires that anyone calling for the ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims as possible terrorists today should retrospectively endorse the ethnic profiling of all American Jews as possible traitors 50 years ago. And if such a statement chokes in his throat, perhaps he should reconsider its present-day analogue.