Alex Massie

A Case Against Profiling

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In the wake of the Knicker-Bomber's attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner it's hardly a surprise that plenty of folk are calling for more rigorous profiling of muslim (or arab) passengers wanting to board aircraft. Some go so far as to suggest that all young muslim men should be strip-searched. Brother Blackburn doesn't go that far but does say that it's just common sense at work. Plenty of commenters agree with him.

So, since I don't think profiling of this sort is a terribly good idea let me concede that it might make a difference to airline security. This might be the case even though there are plenty of examples, as David says, to remind one that any number of criminals would have escaped the kinds of profiling being suggested. Still, that doesn't mean that it couldn't make some difference. The question is whether an increase in airplane security is worth the decrease in security in other areas that might follow were such a policy to be implemented. Here, as everywhere else we are dealing in trade-offs and matters that, necessarily, are of some conjecture. (For that matter, one might note that there hasn't actually been a successful attack on an airplane since 9/11 which might in turn suggest that existing measures are, generally speaking, proving pretty effective.)

Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with profiling is not that it won't be 100% effective; rather it's that one can easily have adverse consequences in other areas. When you stigmatise the innocent and treat them, implicitly, as guilty until proved otherwise you create problems that strike at the essence of the open, liberal society itself and quite possibly increase the number of young men who might be attracted to violence and terrorism.

Our experience with internment in Northern Ireland suggests that this can be the case. Now, granted, profiling at airports is not as severe a sanction as internment was, but internment in Ulster helped radicalise nationalists and republicans who were neither interned themselves nor related to those who were detained.

The problem with profiling -  or with its adoption as official policy - is that it's a catch-all notion that lumps all muslims (in this case) together as suspects. We all, I think, know that we have problems with some muslim malcontents who reject the ideas underpinning a modern, western, liberal society and who will not be dissuaded by profiling. It doesn't effect them very much. They might almost expect it or even welcome it. After all, it would, from their perspective, demonstrate that the islamic and christian worlds must and almost by necessity be at war with one another. From that it follows that introducing policies that confirm or potentially strengthen your enemies worldview may not be the wisest thing we could do. Al-Qaeda wants a civilisational war; that's one good reason for declining to give it to them. (Just as the IRA wanted to be at war with Britain but was to some degree frustrated by London's insistence upon treating the conflict as a souped-up police operation, albeit one with a military component.)

More important still, however, is the fact that the vital sources of intelligence in this conflict come from within our muslim communities themselves. It is moderate muslims who will, in the end, be vital in identifying would-be terrorists. Without good information coming from inside our muslim communities, valuable intelligence is much harder to come by.

And that's where profiling could prove costly. Because if it creates a situation in which British muslims feel they are all being treated as suspects merely because of the name of the god they worship then it's not hard to see how it could come to pass that information streams from within the muslim community might dry up very quickly. That doesn't seem impossible. And if that were to be the case then every life profiling might save on airlines might be more than outweighed by the numbers lost in other attacks that might otherwise have been prevented but for a want of insider information and co-operation.

Indeed, we might ask if Abdulmutalib's father would have been quite so quick to contact the American Embassy in Nigeria if he'd spent the previous few years being treated as though he were a terrorist every time he went to the airport. Perhaps he would but perhaps too someone else in his position would have thought again.

As it happens, I think we probably have a de facto profiling policy in place anyway, albeit one that is made less explicit by the additional questions sometimes asked of people who are, shall we say, most unlikely to be terrorists. But there's a difference between a policy hidden in this fashion and the deliberate, explicit, unabashed targetting of a given societal group.

Again, profiling of this latter sort might help at airports but I think it could have damaging consequences elsewhere. Would muslim radicals welcome profiling? I suspect they might. Why should we be so keen to oblige them then?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyterrorism