by Raywat Deonandan
August 27, 2002
This article appeared as a feature essay in India Currents Magazine in the October, 2002, issue. A shorter version was published in The Ottawa Citizen November 5, 2002, under the title, “The ‘Swarthy’ Factor.”
Ann Coulter says a lot of outrageous things. In fact, the conservative pin-up girl has made her name being unforgivingly further to the Right than Ronald Reagan on his most addled day. Those who do not share her brand of lunacy have learned to respond to her ravings by simply slapping their foreheads and sighing audibly. That’s why it’s both shocking and worrying when a typical heartless and nonsensical Coulterian rant actually gets embraced and echoed by otherwise responsible and sensible people.
In her now infamous columns last September, Coulter wrote of airport screening practices, “It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are.” She then identified those “homicidal maniacs” as “suspicious- looking swarthy males” and called for a law to not only deny them access to US commercial flights, but to deport all immigrants who originate from Arab countries. (1)
Typical Coulter. But this time, more moderate voices piped up in agreement. Chris Mooney, online editor of the Left-leaning American Prospect Magazine, wrote in his Jan 15 column, “Ann Coulter is often out of control, but this isn’t one of those times… The fact that [Coulter’s support for racial profiling] is politically charged is the real problem.” (2)
Recently, journalist friends whom I would normally consider to be reasonable people echoed this sentiment. Their affirmative position on airport racial profiling is summarized by Newsweek contributing editor Stuart Taylor Jr., writing for the National Journal: “the mathematical probability that a randomly chosen Arab passenger might attempt a mass-murder-suicide hijacking –while tiny– is considerably higher than the probability that a randomly chosen White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian passenger might do the same.” (3) It’s ironic that the best and most public disavowment of racial profiling in airports is offered by John Ashcroft, though one assumes disingenuously: “I’m against using race as a profiling component,” he said in a television interview last year.(4)
It’s worth pointing out that everyone so far cited on the pro-profiling side of the argument — Coulter, Mooney, Taylor and my journalist friends– are all as White as the driven snow, and suffer only inconvenience, not slit-eyed scrutiny, from airport security personnel. Many of we “swarthy looking men” take exception to the practice, however, not because it is inconvenient, but because it is unfair, inefficient and not based upon any sound logical principles. Just ask Vahid Zohrehvandi, a US citizen of Iranian birth, who was removed from a commercial flight and interrogated by police because, in the words of a flight attendant, the pilot “did not like how he looked.” (5) Of course the only thing Zohrehvandi was guilty of was being a “swarthy” Muslim trying to get home to Dallas. By all accounts, none of his behaviours or possessions were out of the ordinary.
While security providers insist that profiling is not being undertaken, it’s difficult to believe that the practice is not embraced in an unofficial or even clandestine manner. Indeed, a civil suit is being filed against four US airlines for illegal racial profiling (6). In Zohrehvandi’s case, unofficial profiling was employed to target him for persecution; the process may not have been systematic or sanctioned, but it was nonetheless initiated, irrationally and emotionally, by the pilot. Since a pilot has near absolute discretion onboard his craft, few civil rights precepts are enforceable.
When looking at airport security, one must consider the goal. Is it to prevent Al-Qaeda operatives from performing a “mass-murder-suicide hijacking” (as Taylor and Coulter suggest), or is it rather to simply keep the passengers and crew safe? The former focuses on a specific threat, while the latter is more broad based. If the latter, then clearly racial profiling is not a viable option, since safety can be compromised in many ways by people of all races, nationalities and genders, with or without a political agenda. Indeed, a dedicated search of “swarthy looking” males will miss the Asian individual who ignorantly wishes to open a cabin door in mid-flight (as was attempted on a recent Air China flight) (7), as well as the White teenager who wishes to commit suicide by crashing the plane (as was done in Florida) (8). Arab terrorists are in vogue at the moment, but history has shown that hijackers and others who threaten commercial airplanes can originate from any nation, religion or gene pool.
But if the goal of airport security is the former –to prevent Al Qaeda operatives from hijacking and/or destroying the plane– well, racial profiling still accomplishes nothing. Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” is so far the only person apprehended trying to destroy an American plane in the post-9/11 world. Racial profiling would not (and did not) catch Reid because he is three quarters White and one quarter Black, and thus does not set off the well-calibrated swarthiness meter.
This is a point worth drilling home: Al Qaeda is an international pan-ethnic organization. Many of its members may share a physical resemblance (though even this is an assumption), but many do not. In a July 30 report, the strategic intelligence corporation, Stratfor Strategic Forecasting, pointed out that Al Qaeda is comprised of many races, including Caucasians from the West and Asians from Japan and China. In Stratfor’s tempered language, they note that this multi- ethnicity makes security screening based on racial profiling, “problematic.” More accurately, it makes the practice worthless.
Supporters of racial profiling balk at the objections of civil libertarians and claim to embrace the logic of efficiency above the luxury of sensitivity. Their sanguineness is brought into question, however, when one examines other profiling opportunities gone unexplored. For instance, to use Taylor’s above cited verbiage, the mathematical probability that a randomly chosen White person might attempt a child kidnaping –while tiny– is considerably higher than the probability that a randomly chosen Middle Eastern, Black, Hispanic, or Asian person might do the same. Yet, are parents more or less cautious when White men, as opposed to non-White men, frequent their children’s playgrounds? The answer is that most parents and security personnel would observe the behaviour of the individual in question more so than his skin colour. The act of skulking about the playground in a long trenchcoat is far more pertinent than whether the individual in question belongs to an ethnic group with a perceived higher statistical probability of criminal involvement. Similar examples can be drawn for a host of crimes that Whites are statistically more liable to commit, such as sexual assaults and hate crimes. Yet security measures designed to protect against such violations rarely if ever employ racial profiling, officially or otherwise.
Why is this same reasoning not employed when dealing with airline security? Obviously, it’s because of the logic-draining legacy of September 11. This nation is presently gripped with an irrational fear of all things vaguely Middle Eastern or Muslim, despite the fact that such groups constitute up to 20% of the global population, including a very large homegrown citizenry. Is it truly rational to fear, and thus persecute, a billion people? The denuding of all things Islamic and Islamic-resembling is so fashionable now that syndicated columnists like Mark Steyn can get away with such asinine and unfounded declarations as, “the Muslim world is economically, militarily, scientifically and artistically irrelevant.” (9)
Increasingly, due to terrorism paranoia, this is an America that retreats to its self-conception as a monochromatic nation: the only true Americans are White and uniformly Christian. I am reminded of a White woman overheard at a recent office cocktail party giggling, “I would never date a non-White man. I guess I’m just an All-American kind of girl.” In her view, one shared unconsciously by many others, “All-American” is equated with “White,” and, by extension, anything not of the appropriate colour is to be distrusted.
Racial profiling in airports will not result in the apprehension of Al-Qaeda or any other kind of terrorist. Rather, it serves only to further persecute groups who are already suffering the irrational wrath of a national mob mentality, and to lay bare the hate-filled and hypocritical xenophobia that lies at the heart of America’s drive for greater security.
- – http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/coulter.html
- – http://www.prospect.org/webfeatures/2002/01/mooney-c-01-15.html
- – http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/nj/taylor2001-09-25.htm
- – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/abc091601.html
- – http://www.cnn.com/2001/TRAVEL/NEWS/10/03/rec.airlines.profiling/index.html
- – http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/06/04/airlines.discrimination/index.html
- – http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_618442.html?menu=news.quirkies
- – http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/01/05/tampa.crash/
- – http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0802/steyn.html