Profiling Is a Dirty Word, But It's a Dirty World

But racial profiling has not always worked for the good of American society and some experts believe political correctness in some official circles is a direct outcome of historically infamous trysts with racial profiling.

While the United States has profiled against Chinese laborers and non-European immigrants in the course of its history, experts say it was the internment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II that left an indelible mark on the American psyche.

One of the victims of the internment was current Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, whose family was forced into a remote Wyoming camp in 1942.

Sixty years after the 11-year-old Mineta's baseball bat was confiscated before he was sent into a fenced-in, floodlit camp, the transportation secretary is widely perceived as being staunchly opposed to profiling people based on their race, ethnicity or religion.

In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, Mineta steadfastly defended his department's policy. When asked if, for instance, he saw three young Arab men praying before boarding a flight, would that give him a reason to stop and ask them questions, Mineta responded with an implacable "no reason."

While the FBI and the CIA provides the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) with intelligence and information on suspected terrorists, the FAA has a computer profiling system called CAPPS (Computer-Assisted Passenger Profiling System) that selects passengers for additional screening based on more than 20 secret factors, such as whether a passenger bought a ticket with cash.

CAPPS does not, however, consider race, ethnicity or religion.

Can Racial Profiling Be a Good Thing?

But some experts say ignoring nationality and ethnic profiling, which they say is tantamount to racial profiling, makes no sense in the post-Sept. 11 world given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and all were Arab men.

And a majority of the men on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list — which was unveiled last October — were born in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All the men — including terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, who tops the list — are Muslims.

Experts also say that when it comes to issuing U.S. visas, there exists an inherent, if subtle, system of nationality profiling. "On the face of it, there is not supposed to be any profiling, but certain systems like the green card lottery, which is only open for nationals from certain countries definitely does not treat everyone equally," says Mehta. "And yes, in terms of consular practices, things differ — the U.S. Embassy in Sweden, for instance, will greatly differ from the one in Karachi [Pakistan]."

Michael Ledeen of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book The War Against the Terror Masters believes the time has come to be open about racial profiling.

"Racial profiling is not happening and I think it should be happening," he says. "Because you can't do a detailed examination of everybody in a large universe, you need means to determine who's most likely to attack."

But on his part, Bahn says he has no truck with the way the Bush administration has handled the issue of profiling.

"I think the U.S. government has been quite good about the way it has handled this," he says. "Right after 9/11, Bush came out and said this is not about all Muslims. I think people need to be reassured that airline passengers who look a certain way are not a threat. If the government does its best, then people are less likely to incorrectly respond to a wrong person."

That's just what Chowdhury says he wants — a "correct" response even in a difficult situation. "I'm not a security official," he says. "I can understand if it's a security issue. But when it becomes a personal issue — in my case, it was just a pilot who had a problem, the security officials had cleared me — then there definitely is a problem."

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