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

The first sign of trouble came at the San Francisco International Airport on the morning of Oct. 23, when Arshad Chowdhury was returning to school in Pittsburgh from a trip to the West Coast.

The 26-year-old business administration student at Carnegie Mellon University was waiting to catch Northwest Airlines Flight 342 to Pittsburgh when an announcement summoned him to the airline desk.

At first Chowdhury, a U.S. citizen who was born in America after his parents migrated from Bangladesh, did not imagine there could be possibly be any problem.

Chowdhury suspected there must have been a mix up with the ticket. But an airline official informed him that he could not board the plane because his name had a "phonetic similarity" to one on a government watch-list.

"I didn't know what he meant," recalls the MBA student whose last name is a common South Asian surname. "But I was very cooperative, since obviously there was a mistake."

Within minutes, he was surrounded by police and FBI agents in full view of an increasingly suspicious group of passengers and although the FBI subsequently cleared him, Northwest airline officials refused to let him board the flight.

He finally got to Pittsburgh on a US Airways flight, but it was not the end of his unfortunate tryst with airport security.

In November, when he was flying home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, he was summoned again. Apparently Northwest Airlines had put a "block" on his name, a revelation that sent shivers down his spine.

"How would you feel if your name was on a terrorist watch-list?" he asks. "I don't know how far the information spread. It might have prevented me from renting a car ... or heaven forbid if there was another terrorist attack while I was on the list."

Although the block has since been rectified, Chowdhury is one of five claims made in lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing four airlines of unfairly kicking Middle Eastern-looking men off their flights.

Fingerprinting Foreigners

"Flying while Arab" — a post 9/11 alteration of the phrase "driving while black," which refers to racial profiling complaints against the police for targeting black motorists — has in recent months sent civil and immigration rights groups on the offensive even as the authorities announce new measures to beef up homeland security.

Exactly a year after the attacks on America, the Justice Department will implement a new program to fingerprint and photograph more than 100,000 U.S. visa holders every year posing an "elevated national security concern."

Announcing the plan on Monday, Justice Department officials said there would be a 20-day testing period at several unnamed ports of entry beginning on Sept. 11, and all remaining entry ports would implement the new system on Oct. 1, 2002.

Called the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, the program is aimed at eventually tracking "virtually all" of the 35 million foreign visitors who land in the United States each year. Justice Department officials estimate the system would be fully operational by 2005.

But until that happens, approximately 100,000 visitors from five countries would initially be tracked. These include nationals from Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya — which, along with North Korea and Cuba make up the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Rights Groups Cry Racial Profiling, Officials Disagree

Civil and immigrant rights groups however have vociferously denounced the new program as a "fancy but enormous" exercise in racial profiling.

"This system is not yet in place, but it will certainly lead to racial profiling," says Cyrus Mehta, chairman of the Immigration Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

"Other countries also have militants, but this is a matter of applying the rules only to a certain group of people. How else would you determine this except by profiling? This is all very subjective."

Justice Department officials however vehemently deny the allegations that the new system will racially profile visitors. "Absolutely not," says Susan Dryden, a Justice Department spokeswoman. "There is nothing in the system to indicate this is based on race."

Noting that Congress has mandated a stricter entry-exit system under the sweeping anti-terrorism legislation signed by Bush late last year, Dryden says the criteria includes all individuals posing a "national security risk" as well as nationals of the five countries and "aliens identified by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) at a port of entry, using certain criteria."

She however declined to provide details of those criteria.

'Just Be Honest'

In a multiracial, multiethnic country that sees itself, among other things, as a refuge for all the world's huddled masses, profiling is a dark, dirty word in the American lexicon. But on both sides of the profiling divide, some experts wonder why the authorities simply do not come out and admit to racial profiling.

"There is definitely a nationality classification going on here, which usually translates into a racial or ethnic classification," Christopher Malone, a political science professor specializing in U.S. racial issues at New York's Pace University. "It is strange that the justice department doesn't call it this — I would prefer for them to just be honest about what they are doing rather than trying to have it both ways."

When it comes to official policy on profiling, Charles Bahn, a professor of forensic psychology at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that in the course of a long career in the field, he has seen what he calls "three different periods in racial profiling."

"In the first period, the police used racial profiling very widely — and I think at great cost — particularly on young blacks and Hispanics," he says. "In the second phase, law enforcement officials went overboard trying to make it clear that they were not racial profiling. So, if the suspect was a 6-foot Swedish man, they would stop an elderly Italian lady."

Sept. 11 changed the pattern of profiling, according to Bahn, but what he finds most interesting was the results of a poll conducted by Zogby International after the attacks, which found that 60 percent of blacks favored a policy that singles out Arab-Americans for special scrutiny at airport check-in counters.

In Bahn's opinion, racial profiling in certain circumstances makes sense and in exceptional situations, the headaches that arise due to profiling must simply be put up with.

"You have to use whatever indicators that will bring you to the culprit," he says. "If somebody from the same group as you has a history of evil intent, then people like that person have to tolerate it for the good of society."

Ghosts of Internment

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."