Two blonde American women, implicated in a plot to murder a cartoonist whose drawings of the Prophet Muhammad offended many Muslims, should put the last nail in the coffin of racial profiling. But don't bet on it.
As governments scramble to respond to public anxiety in the wake of terrorist attacks, profiling has proven a resilient, if failed, strategy. It was widely assumed that Arabs or Muslims were responsible for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 -- until the evidence led to Timothy McVeigh. The first terrorist attacks in Israel during the second Intifada focused attention on religious men. But in March 2002, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who looked European and spoke Hebrew blew herself up in a West Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis.
Now, after years of targeting young Islamic men, counterterrorism organizations have reportedly turned their attention to a new category of suspects: "white Caucasian women from Western countries with no previously known ties to Islamic terrorist groups."
The problem with profiling is that no consistent profile of a terrorist exists.
Not all terrorists are Muslims. And even if they were, not all Muslims look alike, or come from the same place. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down the Northwest plane on December 25, is Nigerian. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is British. One of the men responsible for the July 7, 2005 bombings in London was Afro-Caribbean. A Moroccan national was found responsible for the 2004 attack on Madrid's central train station. The 2002 Bali bombers were Indonesian.
Far from contributing to the fight against terrorism, profiling reduces security by alienating some of the very communities who serve as sources of intelligence. Many law enforcement professionals understand these dangers. Thus, it was not a human rights advocate, but a senior European police official who warned of the "very real risk" that by "criminalizing minority communities" through "the counter-terrorism label ... just at the time when we need the confidence and trust of these communities, they may retreat inside themselves."
Moreover, when authorities treat an entire group of people -- whether Muslims, Arabs, or others -- as presumptively suspicious, they are more likely to overlook dangerous persons who don't fit the profile. Before the July 7 London attacks, the leader of the bombers had reportedly come to the attention of the intelligence services as an associate of other terrorist suspects. But he was not pursued because he did not satisfy enough of the pre-July criteria.
A massive data-mining exercise in Germany from 2001 to 2003 trawled through personal information on 8.3 million people searching for attributes which included religion and national origin. It failed to find a single terrorist.
Stops and searches conducted under counter-terrorism laws in Europe have produced few terrorism charges and no convictions. The European Court of Human Rights has expressed concern about the "risks of the discriminatory use of" stop and search powers against ethnic minorities. Studies in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US have concluded that ethnic profiling wastes time and money.
With profiling so discredited, why does it remain attractive? Bluntly put, fear and politics. It's a quick, easy way for governments to show they are getting tough on terrorism. And politicians understandably prefer to impose the burdens of additional security measures only on a select minority.
But if profiling is not the answer, what should governments do?
One step, as President Obama has stated, is to improve coordination among intelligence agencies and speed up the distribution of information, both within and between governments. This may help keep off an airplane someone previously denied a visa whose own father has issued a warning.
Hardening potential targets -- with more air marshals, improved scanning technology, and better trained and paid screeners -- is essential. Anyone who's flown in the past decade knows that the quality and professionalism of security personnel at airports vary widely.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies must have more consistent ability, and resources, to carry out the often-painstaking investigative work required to apprehend and convict persons of terrorist acts.
Ending profiling is not just the right thing to do. It will likely improve law enforcement productivity.
When the U.S. Customs Agency removed a race-based drug courier profile that was targeting black and Latina women, it more than doubled the frequency of contraband detection. Police units in Hungary and Spain that instituted data gathering to monitor profiling tripled the number of stops which yielded an arrest or other law enforcement outcome.
The threat of terrorist violence is real. But profiling is not the right approach. It may seem strange, but as Ray Kelly, New York City's police chief has declared, "profiling is just nuts."