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Racial Profiling is Un-American

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Is this a bad time to argue we shouldn't profile Muslim Americans?

In light of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll that found that many Americans harbor anti-Muslim feelings, I had planned to make another plea that we stop blaming an entire community of people for the reprehensible acts of a few bad actors. And on the heels of a new study -- presented last week at a meeting of the American Psychological Association -- which found that Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans are experiencing poorer mental health than other Americans, I intended to say that we should celebrate differences and have zero tolerance for those who harass, condemn and even assault other human beings because of their religion or physical appearance.

Then came the chilling news that British authorities had foiled a terror plot by Islamic radicals to bring down up to 10 passenger planes set to leave the United Kingdom for the United States, a plot that -- had it been successful -- would have achieved what one British law enforcement official described as "mass murder on an unimaginable scale.''

I still believe that Americans should strive to be fair and tolerant and respectful of diversity, and that we shouldn't issue blanket indictments. It's just that now, I bet, most Americans aren't in the mood to hear that message.

They don't want to hear about how unfair it is that Muslim Americans -- even those who have no ties to terrorism -- are routinely singled out for additional scrutiny and subjected to resentment and prejudice at the hands of their countrymen. They probably don't want to hear about how we mustn't sacrifice our civil liberties -- or anyone else's -- or paint all Muslim Americans with the same broad brush. And they certainly don't want to hear that the reason we have to avoid doing all this isn't just to protect the rights of ethnic groups and the personal safety of individuals, but also the spirit of a great country.

Yet it is at moments like this -- when passions are running hot -- that such messages really need to sink in. After all, when are we supposed to discuss the subject -- when the threat level decreases and things cool down? What good would it do then? That's like holding your tongue when Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II and speaking up only when the war was over and the camps were closed. It's like sitting out the civil rights movement, and speaking up only once the major battles were won.

Now the embattled group is Muslim Americans. In the USA Today/Gallup poll, 39 percent of Americans said they felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage favored requiring Muslims, including those who were U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID to help prevent future terrorist attacks. And 22 percent of respondents said they wouldn't want Muslims as neighbors.

Eavesdropping on talk radio and conservative blogs since the terror plot was revealed, one would think we've gone back in time to the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when hate crimes were on the rise and some people called for racial profiling of Arab-Americans. That's happening again, as some Americans are once more proposing that we behave in very un-American ways.

During an interview on "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace asked Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff if we shouldn't engage in "security profiling'' of Muslims who want to get on airplanes instead of "wasting time'' screening 85-year-old grandmothers -- even if such profiling isn't "politically correct.'' (From the way the question was phrased, Wallace presumably was talking about 85-year-old grandmothers who aren't Muslim.)

Chertoff could have answered the question in a variety of ways. He could have talked about how it's wrong to single out members of a particular ethnic group when -- as Wallace acknowledged -- "all Muslims aren't terrorists.'' Or he could have said that we're at war and that everyone has to make sacrifices -- not just Muslims of all ages but also 85-year-old grandmothers. Instead, Chertoff fell back on pragmatism. He responded that while we have to use common sense, terrorists often use people "who do not look like our ordinary conception of terrorists precisely in order to get around our security.'' So if we get too locked into a profile, and exclude all other possibilities, we'll end up "dropping our guard.''

That's not a bad answer either. But shame on those who would even ask the question.

(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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