The ‘Swarthy’ Factor

The ‘Swarthy’ FactorThe ‘Swarthy’ Factor

by Raywat Deonandan
November 5, 2002

This article appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on November 5, 2002. A longer version appeared in India Currents Magazine October, 2002, under the title, “Profile This!”

Subhead: Hijackers come in all races and colours, so targeting travellers who look middle eastern will do nothing but fuel xenophobia.

Image: portrait of Rohinton Mistry. Caption: Many of us swarthy-looking men, including Canadian author Rohinton Mistry, object to the practice of racial profiling.

As a Canadian living in the USA, Im often asked about the differences between our countries. One such difference is the extremism of viewpoints expounded by media pundits: in the USA, commentators more often take stances that are deliberately politically incorrect or inciting. In the wake of the War On Terror, however, such positions have polarized even further, in some cases transcending incorrectness and abutting racism. No other topic brings out such attitudes more effusively than the issue of racial profiling in airports. Many mainstream writers, who may have been cowed in more peaceful times, have come out in favour of the practice, from Ann Coulter calling for the deportation of all “suspicious- looking swarthy males” to Newsweek contributing editor Stuart Taylors declaration that “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.”

It’s worth pointing out that virtually all of the American commentators on the pro-profiling side of the argument — Coulter and Taylor included — are White, and so suffer only inconvenience, not slit-eyed scrutiny, from airport security personnel. But many of we “swarthy looking men” take exception to the practice, 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.”

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. 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 their July 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, 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 Stuart Taylor’s 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 belonging to an ethnic group with a perceived higher likelihood 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. The USA 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 even Canadian writers like the National Posts Mark Steyn can get away with such asinine and unfounded declarations as, “the Muslim world is economically, militarily, scientifically and artistically irrelevant.” Maybe on some issues, Canadian and American extremists arent so different, after all.

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.

Raywat Deonandan is an owner of The Podium. His personal website may be found at