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Damned If We Do, and Don't

Should the NYPD practice counterterrorist profiling in the subway? Maybe—quietly, unofficially, sensibly—it already is.


We are all racial profilers.

When the black bus driver, walking alone at night down a block of my Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, sees three white people walking toward him, he may not even consciously register the fact of their race if the ofays are, say, me and my daughters. But if they’re a pair of bulky, buzz-cut, swaggering teenagers, neighborhood boys, maybe one of them carrying a softball bat, he would be a fool or a saint if he didn’t see them as a pair of tough white kids. Conversely, when it’s me walking alone, I may be very nearly color-blind to the race of the bus driver, but the blackness of two black teenage boys in cornrows and gangsta jeans loping toward me is, sad to say, salient.

In this chockablock city, where we each glance and stare at scores of strangers every day, we are all profiling constantly. It’s mostly a benign, idle urban pastime, rarely a matter of threat assessment: We look and we speculate—based on manner, age, sex, height, weight, voice, clothes, hairstyle, books carried, newspapers read, and ethnicity—about who that other person is. Each of us applies a customized judgmental algorithm to everyone else, and race is inevitably part of the calculus.

But still, I felt a little guilty the other afternoon in Foley Square, walking between two big federal buildings, when I darted off the sidewalk the moment I saw a woman approaching in a full black burka. I wanted to get beyond her killing radius as quickly as I could. It was silly, and slightly shameful, but reflexive: In the summer of 2005 in New York, ostentatiously pious Muslim = potential suicide bomber.

It was the first time since 9/11—when, an hour after the planes hit, I found myself walking down 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth thinking, Uh-oh! Diamond district! Target zone!—that my fear of a terrorist attack had been so adrenalized and . . . actionable. As it turned out, the same day I skedaddled away from the burka’d lady, cops pulled five British Sikhs off a sightseeing bus because they had seemed “suspicious” to a Gray Line employee. When I was discussing these incidents with one of my daughters, she described an episode last Tuesday on her F-train car: A Hasidic man stepped on, saw two fellow passengers in burkas, then hurriedly got off before the doors closed.

The fear is back, thanks to the bombings in London, which is, of course, what the terrorists intend. And when the New York police responded by announcing they would begin inspecting the bags of subway and bus passengers, it was unclear if it served to reassure us or, like orange alerts, just make us jumpier.

“There will certainly be no racial profiling allowed,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly rushed to say, and Mayor Bloomberg promised the checks would be “totally random.”

Until then, I hadn’t really stopped to consider how absolutely stigmatized any hint of “racial profiling” had become during the past few years. George Bush condemned it in his very first address to Congress (“We will end it in America”) and in a speech several weeks before 9/11. “I particularly direct you to follow a policy of race neutrality,” Tom Ridge wrote in a memo last year, reiterating that the “Department of Homeland Security’s policy is to prohibit the consideration of race or ethnicity in our daily law enforcement activities,” and his successor agrees. Opposition to racial profiling is perhaps the one issue on which John Ashcroft and Al Sharpton and the ACLU all agree. In the mainstream media, the brave peeps of contrarian candor—as when Maureen Dowd wrote that 9/11 might have been prevented “if the law-enforcement agencies had not been so . . . timid about racial profiling”—are rare. Absolute con is motherhood and apple pie; full-throated pro is, by definition, a position of right-wing freaks and outliers.

Would that it were as unambiguous as our leaders make out. Racial profiling of any kind, Bloomberg told a caller to his radio show, is unconstitutional, so just forget about it. “The courts will not permit you to do that. . . . Period, end of story.” Maybe, but not necessarily; given that submitting to one of the few-and-far-between subway checkpoints is consensual, ethnically targeted bag searches might not be found to violate the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Well, the mayor says, even if it were legal, it would be impractical, since “you can’t predict what a terrorist looks like . . . You just can’t go and say everybody who has blue eyes . . . is a terrorist just because most terrorists that you’ve caught have blue eyes.” Nobody, of course, is saying that every young Arab or Pakistani man is an Islamic terrorist. But it is deeply disingenuous of Bloomberg to deny the fact that not just “most” but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like—even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.

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