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America: Land of the Free? Not if You're a Muslim

January 18, 2005
Mary Shaw

A recent Cornell University survey found that almost half of all Americans believe that the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. This bigoted, racist attitude is quite simply appalling. It essentially favors racial profiling; yet a recent report by Amnesty International presents strong evidence indicating that racial profiling does not work.

Amnesty's report was based on six national public hearings and more than a year of intensive research. The report provides overwhelming evidence indicating that racial profiling is not only ineffective but actually impedes the process of finding the real criminals, encourages hate, and undermines national unity. Just as racial profiling has failed in the "war on drugs," it is likewise doomed to fail in the "war on terror."

Proponents of racial profiling might argue that the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, and so Muslims are more likely to initiate further terror attacks against Americans and should be scrutinized accordingly. Some call this "hunting where the ducks are." Using that logic, however, why did we not crack down on white, European-American men after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995?

Racial profiling gives terrorists a formula for greater success. It tips off criminal networks about who needs to be recruited in order to be more effective. This is illustrated by the U.S. government's experience in World War II when, despite the massive internments of Japanese Americans and visitors, none of the people convicted of spying for Japan were of Japanese or Asian ancestry.

Moreover, the arrests of John Walker Lindh (a white, middle-class male), Jose Padilla (an Hispanic gang member), and Richard Reid (a British citizen of West Indian ancestry) suggest that terrorists have already been successful in recruiting a diverse group of sympathizers who by their nature could not be identified through racial profiling.

Similarly, over a period of months in 2003, a white male college student from Maryland smuggled box cutters, bleach, matches, and an item of the same consistency as plastic explosives onto six airplanes. He was able to pass through airport security because he did not "fit the profile."

Multiple studies have shown that when police focus on factors such as race, they tend to pay less attention to actual criminal behavior. This is a dangerous trend that can inhibit effective law enforcement and ultimately endanger the lives of all persons who depend on law enforcement for protection.

According to the U.S. Constitution and international laws and treaties, every person has the fundamental right to equal protection under the law regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. This includes Muslim Americans.

Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, summed it up well: "Racial profiling is to the 21st century what Jim Crow laws were to the last, turning entire groups of people into second-class citizens and denying them the rights to which we all are due."

Targeting people for investigation based on arbitrary factors such as race is clearly ineffective and profoundly unjust. We will be much better protected if law enforcement and security personnel focus on what people are doing, and not on what they look like or whether they worship in a church or in a mosque.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She currently serves as Philadelphia Area Coordinator for Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. E-mail mary@maryshawonline.com.

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