Are liberals to blame for Sept. 11? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks so. The FBI may have been inept and beset by turf wars. Nonetheless, Kristof wrote in a May 31 column that: "One reason aggressive agents were restrained as they tried to go after Zacarias Moussaoui is that liberals like myself have regularly excoriated law enforcement authorities for taking shortcuts and engaging in racial profiling." Kristof goes on to advocate racial profiling as a necessary tradeoff for security. Racial profiling is, however, guilt by association. Even its short term efficacy is debatable at best. Its most enduring, and dangerous, contribution may be in identifying and framing an outside enemy so that mainstream Americans can feel good about their values and life styles. In the process, however, it makes the world a more divided and dangerous place.
The world is dangerous, but it astounds me how selective we are in the dangers we identify. Planes are potentially far more dangerous to all of us than automobiles. Jumbo jets are probably the most dangerous of commercial planes. Kristof points out that Moussaoui aroused suspicion because he was a poor pilot but wanted to learn how to fly jumbo jets. Shouldn't we have background checks for everyone who wants to fly planes, and shouldn't those who want to fly jumbo jets be subject to especially close scrutiny for their talents and skill level as well? It seems to me that a nation in love with technology and enamored of "free markets" is all too reluctant to raise these questions.
When I read about Zacarias Moussaoui, I also wonder why one would even need to focus on his ancestry. The man paid for his lessons with $8,000 in cash, an act Kristof labels as merely mildly suspicious. In an era of checks, credit and debit cards, walking around with thousands of dollars in cash is not merely imprudent, it clearly suggests one wants to avoid leaving paper trails.
When intentional human acts turn our technologies against us, those who are already coded as enemies of our beliefs and lifestyles are immediately singled out for blame. Before Sept. 11, the worst instance of terrorism on our soil was the Oklahoma City bombing. We easily forget the woeful performance of the US media in its immediate aftermath. Myriad network experts painstakingly identified the various "Arab" terrorist organizations that were the likely perpetrators.
While even some liberals now contemplate giving government more rights to spy on dissidents in political and religious settings, almost no one talks about the fiasco of the white Midwestern pipe bomber. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson has been virtually alone in reminding us of the hypocrisies implicit in the case of Lucas Helder: "Helder was stopped not once, not twice, but three times for traffic violations during his terrorist rampage and let go all three times. During one of the encounters, Helder said, ''I didn't mean to hurt anybody.'' During another he was cited for having an expired driver license, and that still did not raise any alarms. The police chose to see a tired, apologetic figure worthy of sympathy. One officer let him go because it was Helder's birthday."
Kristof argues that racial profiling has made Israel's airlines the safest in the world, but one can hardly say the same for Israeli soil. Not only does profiling in conjunction with an occupation instill a sense of rage, it also blinds us to the protean and adaptable nature of terror. Israel has already witnessed instances of suicide bombing by young women, a phenomenon that should give all but the most ardent profilers pause.
Our president deems Iraq worthy of eventual invasion because its makes weapons of mass destruction and uses them on its own people. Yet here at home, copious circumstantial evidence suggests that the Anthrax perpetrator could only have been one of a small number of our bioterrorism experts.
I could make a better case for preventive detention of all US bioterrorism experts than for the thousands of Arab visitors now indiscriminately rounded up and jailed without charge. But unlike Kristof, I doubt that any profiling by beliefs or ethnic background is appropriate. Security in this world will never be perfect, but there are two important steps we can take. Fair enforcement of the laws against violence and reasonable investigation triggered by probable cause are not a luxury. They foster more long run cooperation with law enforcement. They also compel law enforcement to keep an open mind to all potential law violators.
Finally, our citizens would be better off by moving toward elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, including India's, Pakistan, and Israel's atomic weaponry. US willingness to initiate positive steps would provide a big incentive to other states and do more for our safety than the most draconian forms of profiling.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at email@example.com.