Christmas Day Northwest Terror Attack Sparks Fiery Racial Profiling Debate

Could racial or religious profiling have stopped the Christmas Day attacker?

ByABC News via logo
December 28, 2009, 9:59 PM

Dec. 29, 2009— -- In addition to the Nigerian Muslim man accused of attempting to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, at least three other travelers were detained over the holiday break, for reasons that proved to be unrelated to terrorism.

Another Nigerian man spent too long in the lavatory due to food poisoning, and two Middle Eastern men were removed from their flights for speaking "suspiciously" in a foreign language and watching a Hollywood movie that featured a suicide bombing.

The incidents, which turned out to be harmless misunderstandings, prompted a strong reaction against "racial and religious profiling" in the Muslim community and a fiery debate among experts about the value of racial profiling on "Good Morning America" today.

Steven Emerson, the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a former journalist, said that using racial or religious profiling as an aspect of the screening process is simply "smart."

"One hundred percent of all the terrorist attacks against the U.S. last year were carried out by Muslim jihadists. If that's the one common denominator, let's include that in the mix at airports that would trigger a secondary inspection," Emerson said. "What I say is do smart screening."

But what Emerson called "smart screening," former FBI agent and American Civil Liberties adviser Michael German called ineffective and unconstitutional.

"Terrorists come in all shapes and sizes, all nationalities," German said, noting the 2003 uncovering of chemical weapons in the home of a white Texas couple. "If you look around the country, there have been any number of white supremacists, neo-Nazi terrorists ... [profiling] is unconstitutional, it's ineffective and it's actually counterproductive."

German said that not only was it unlikely that profiling would have stopped the underwear bomber, since religious affiliation is not on passports, but such measures could serve to create terrorists.

"One of the triggers for terrorists is experiencing racism," German said.

The idea that profiling is detrimental was echoed by Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who issued a statement Monday.

"While everyone supports robust airline security measures, racial and religious profiling are, in fact, counterproductive and can lead to a climate of insecurity and fear," Hooper said.

Rather, German said officials should focus on investigating legitimate security concerns, such as who's on watch lists.

Emerson disagreed, saying the Christmas Day attacker's name, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, would have alerted screeners to possible Muslim affiliation and blamed the fact that the watch lists are bloated on an unwillingness to "extrapolate" certain factors.

"I'm not saying to use it [profiling] to the exclusion of other factors, but include it in the mix. ... The fact is there is a common characteristic. Let's be smart about this," he said. "You suspect 98-year-old ladies in Sweden because we're trying to distribute the risk?

"Do smart screening. It'll stop terrorist attacks," he said.