Terror Attacks on Airplanes: Time for Profiling?

By Author: Admin | January 3, 2010

Who would have thought that an young Nigerian man named Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was a terrorist?

What does a terrorist look like? Is his name always going to include the title ‘Abdul’?  You may remember The Shoe Bomber.  The Shoe Bomber (aka Richard Reid) was bi-racial (half Caucasian), and appears ethnically ambiguous, neither black, or white or brown.  His name does not sound particularly ‘Muslim-ee’.  Would the average security person at Pearson International Airport in Toronto know the difference between a Hindu name, and a Muslim one?  What about the name Chaudhary which is spelled dozens of ways and is carried by Hindus as well as Muslims in countries located in East Africa, not to mention India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Malaysia?  Similarly, well travelled or well read persons would know that there are millions of Arab Christians who have “Muslim-ee” sounding names (like Abdul) and are at first glance indistinguishable from your average Sicilian or Spaniard.

On a US-based flight shortly after 9-11, some passengers were alarmed (or terrorized) at the sight of Mediterranean-looking men wearing skull caps, and  were quietly chanting while the plane was landing.  Further investigation revealed the men to be not terrorists, but Orthodox Jews in prayer. I have met Sephardic Jews who look like some South Asian people I know.

Persons familiar with the developing world would be aware that Muslims are not readily identifiable on the basis of their skin tone, and range from Bosnian-white to Subsaharan-black or Uighur Chinese.  Does anyone remember John Walker Lindh, the young white guy who was raised in Northern California, and had the misfortune of being in Afghanistan when the US invaded during October 2002?

By contrast, proponents of profiling (often in the context of decrying political correctness,) assert that profiling on the basis of one’s country origin and religion is a no-brainer.  These persons see the sources of terrorism in simplistic, cartoonish and vaguely defined terms.   The reality is, however, that there is a scientific basis for concluding random screening is as effective as profiling passengers on the basis of race or perceived religion:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16521-random-checks-as-effective-as-terrorist-profiling.html

This is not to say that profiling should be completely prohibited.  For example, a young male boarding a plane bound to the US, who was discovered carrying a large amount of cash, and passports for more than one country, with entry stamps indicating that he visited the Sudan and subsequently visited Afghanistan and Yemen should be thoroughly questioned about his purpose of visiting the USA.  His person may also have to be thoroughly searched.  This would be reasonable.  Can all of this information be gleaned by low-level security screeners at Transport Canada who are viewing an x-ray of your baggage, and waving a plastic wand around you? Not likely..

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