Nov 1 2001

‘This Isn’t Discrimination, This Is Necessary’

Amid pleas for tolerance, some call for profiling--and worse

Since September 11, there have been at least three bias-related murders and reports from around the country of assaults and harassment targeting Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Homes, businesses, mosques and Muslim schools have been vandalized, children tormented, and students harassed on college campuses.

Media have reported many of these assaults (e.g., USA Today, 9/20/01; San Francisco Chronicle, 10/4/01) and denounced them as what Tom Brokaw (NBC Nightly News, 9/20/01) called “one of the ugliest legacies of this crisis.” “It’s insanity to burden an entire people with the label terrorist,” the New York Times pointed out (9/23/01), while a Long Island Newsday (9/18/01) op-ed counseled, “Don’t Form a Lynch Mob to Fight Terrorism.”

Mainstream media appeared unusually–and laudably–open to Muslim and Arab voices. Several outlets interviewed Arab- and Muslim-American advocates and clergy, giving them time to say, for example, that “Islam is a religion of peace” (ABC News, 9/25/01; Baltimore Sun, 9/17/01), and that Arab-Americans “love the flag” too (Buffalo News, 9/17/01). CBS News (9/13/01), straining to make a similar point, said that “Arab-Americans love their flag as much as we love ours.”

As suggested by the reference to an Arab-American flag that is different from “ours,” even as media called for sensitivity to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination, it was clear that sensitivity was not all journalists’ long suit. Reporting on the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian-American of the Sikh faith, the New York Times noted (9/19/01) that Sikhs, who wear turbans, “have attracted a disproportionate share of the anger following Tuesday’s attacks.” Readers might wonder just how much anger the Times would consider “proportionate.”

Despite the article’s headline–“Victims of Mistaken Identity, Sikhs Pay a Price for Turbans”–it’s safe to assume the Times didn’t mean to imply that Sodhi’s murder would be any less senseless if he had actually been Muslim, as his alleged murderer (who described himself as a “a patriot… a damn American all the way”) presumably believed. So why not explicitly name racism or anti-Muslim bias, rather than “mistaken identity,” as the cause of his death?

For some the attacks on the Arab and Muslim community were a non-issue. When ABC‘s Peter Jennings followed Bush’s with-us-or-against-us speech to Congress with a Muslim imam’s reaction (9/20/01), Washington Post TV writer Tom Shales called it a “bizarre choice journalistically” (9/21/01), questioning why the anchor would give “this much prominence and emphasis” to the issue of anti-Islamic bigotry. Days earlier (9/17/01), Shales called Jennings’ broadcast “nauseating” because the host had the audacity to interview Palestinian parliament member Hanan Ashrawi about her views on U.S. foreign policy.

Beware the “Arab-looking”

Quibbles about emphasis aside, most media denounced attacks on Arab and Muslim Americans. But there was nevertheless a strong current of support for a different sort of targeting: racial profiling.

Michael Kinsley argued in a Washington Post column (9/30/01) that racial profiling was “racial discrimination with a non-racist rationale”:

An Arab-looking man heading toward a plane is statistically more likely to be a terrorist…. If trying to catch terrorists this way makes sense at all, then Willie-Sutton logic says you should pay more attention to people who look like Arabs than to people who don’t. This is true even if you are free of all ethnic prejudices. It’s not racism.

Given the broad range of features found in the Middle East, the term “Arab-looking” is virtually meaningless, encompassing not only Latinos and South Asians but also many whites and African-Americans. Like most post-September 11 advocates of profiling, Kinsley never explains how he knows that there is any correlation whatsoever between people who fit into this enormous category and any kind of security threat. One could as logically be wary of people from Milwaukee because Jeffrey Dahmer was a cannibal.

In “Survival Instincts Vs. Political Correctness” (Washington Times, 10/18/01), syndicated columnist Mona Charen made a sweeping demand for racial profiling: “Every Middle Eastern-looking truck driver should be pulled over and questioned wherever he may be in the United States.” She also called for mass expulsions based on ethnicity: “There are thousands of Arabs in the United States at this moment on student and travel visas. They should all be asked, politely and without prejudice, to go home.”

In “Profiles Encouraged”–subheaded, “Under the Circumstances, We Must Be Wary of Young Arab Men” ( Opinion Journal, 10/19/01)–former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan applauded acts of discrimination based on public anxiety: “I was relieved at the story of the plane passengers a few weeks ago who refused to board if some Mideastern-looking guys were allowed to board,” she wrote.

Noonan also presented this as a positive story:

Two Mideastern-looking gentlemen, seated together on a plane, were eyeballed by a U.S. air marshal who was aboard. The air marshal told the men they were not going to sit together on this flight. They protested. The marshal said, move or you’re not on this flight. They moved. Plane took off.

But perhaps law enforcement telling people where to sit based on ethnicity–a la Selma, circa 1955–shouldn’t bother us: “If people are of Middle Eastern extract,” Fred Barnes said on Fox‘s Beltway Boys (9/22/01), they “should be treated a little differently, just for the security of the United States.” His colleague Mort Kondracke helpfully suggested that Arab-Americans themselves should “spread the word that this is not discrimination, you know, this is necessary.”

Also on Fox (9/23/01), anchor Brit Hume said he wouldn’t make a fuss “if I were an Arab-American and I had to spend a little extra time explaining myself to security guards getting on an airplane,” since racial profiling is “reasonable” and “effective.”

CNBC‘s Chris Matthews also saw the matter as simple enough. “When you know that all the trouble comes from one little part of the world, why don’t you keep an eye on these people?” he asked (9/13/01). “This civil liberties answer is not going to work with a couple more of these disasters,” he added. “I mean, 5,000 people are dead because we’re big liberals, OK?”

“We want to be smart”

Leave it to Ann Coulter–whose racism was too much even for the Arab-bashing National Review–to reduce the pro-profiling argument to its fallacious core: “Not all Muslims may be terrorists,” she allowed, “but all terrorists are Muslims” (Yahoo! News, 9/28/01).

That’s just wrong, of course, as Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber and decades of clinic-bombing, doctor-shooting Christian extremists can attest. The fact is that ethnicity has never been a reliable indicator of who might be involved in terrorism, making racial profiling not only discriminatory but ultimately ineffective.

One exception was a Today show interview with law professor David Harris, who told Katie Couric (9/25/01): “Racial profiling doesn’t work in general because when we get fixed on somebody’s appearance, their racial appearance, their ethnic appearance, we miss important things about their behavior. And behavior is what good police work is all about.”

Or as an unidentified pilot told NPR (Morning Edition, 9/25/01): “Our enemies come in all shapes, sizes, colors and descriptions, and as long as we just keep looking at people that look like that…they’re not going to do that again. They’ll do it a new way with a name like Smith or Jones. We want to be smart.” That’s a note that was too often missing from post-September 11 coverage.