We've all heard complaints from travelers and jokes from comedians about little old ladies being subjected to lengthy searches in airport security screening lines, while young men who appear to be Muslims breeze through the checkpoints. These complaints and jokes are based on the premise that targeting Muslims for extra scrutiny is an effective and common-sense way to better protect the traveling public, but is being blocked by "political correctness."
And we've all heard calls from government officials to "be vigilant" and watch out for possible terrorists. But what exactly are we looking for? Many Americans just assume the answer is to look out for the stereotypical terrorist — a young Muslim man.
The announcement by British authorities that they recently broke up a plot to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners has quite understandably put airline passengers on edge and has likely increased support for profiling based on religious affiliation.
Reflecting this public fear, a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey of 1,080 U.S. voters in August found that 60 percent said authorities should single out people who look "Middle Eastern" for security screening at locations such as airports and train stations.
Yet attractive and logical as it may seem to a fearful traveling public, a profiling policy focusing on people who appear to be "flying while Muslim" would be extraordinarily difficult to implement and counterproductive.
There are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world — a huge population to single out for special scrutiny — and only a tiny fraction are members of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. And focusing on Muslims would ignore the fact that terrorists professing adherence to other religions have claimed many lives over the years as well, and will certainly do so again in the future.
Even if the goal of security were mistakenly limited to identifying Muslims, the task would be complicated by the fact that Muslims come from nearly all countries in the world, and from every racial group. Many have identifiably Muslim names, but others do not — and names can be changed, legally or with fake identification documents.
Some Muslims are converts. These include: Adam Gadahn, the young California man who recently appeared on an al Qaeda propaganda tape demanding that Americans convert to Islam; British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, who tried and failed to blow up a plane in mid-air and is now serving a life sentence; former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla, who is accused of being part of a support cell for violent Muslim extremists; and "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan. None of these men would be identified as Muslims by their physical characteristics or their names.
Popular or not, religious profiling is unlikely to work in the war against terrorists. We need look back only to U.S. drug policy experiences to see why.
In the 1980s, U.S. drug enforcement squads working in the I-95 corridor from Miami to the Northeast homed in on young black males for special scrutiny. Drug dealers then turned to couriers who did not fit the profile — such as elderly couples in RVs — in an effort to evade law enforcement. In the end, it turned out that race was a useless indicator for tracking drug couriers. Analyses carried out by the RAND Corporation and others determined that blacks and whites stopped for traffic violations were equally likely to be carrying contraband.
Meanwhile, even as police turned away from explicit race-based profiles, a generation of African Americans was alienated. Repairing the damage has been slow and costly, involving expensive and divisive data collection, along with extensive outreach to black neighborhoods. In many communities — Oakland, Calif. and Cincinnati among many others — the damage has resisted fixes.
We'd be naïve to think that terrorists won't follow the example of drug dealers and change their methods to circumvent a profile. Terrorists have, in fact, been doing this for years. To enter Israel for terror attacks, Hamas suicide bombers have disguised themselves as Israeli soldiers, Hasidic Jews and elderly people. Arab terrorists have dyed their hair blond to look like German tourists, and are known to be recruiting women, older people and converts to Islam to join terrorist ranks.
At a time when America needs Muslim support to combat terrorism, authorities need to consider the impact of profiling policies carefully. It is perfectly legitimate to subject travelers to additional inspection because of their passport and nationality, or because of their recent international travel indicated by passport stamps, or because of their behavior. But focusing only on young Muslim men will send a message to terrorists that they can evade detection by sending people who do not fit this profile on deadly missions.
When you see a grandmother being patted down in an airport security line, remember that grandma's frisking is necessary, in part so that we are not deluded into using stereotypes for security. Tighter security is a burden we must all bear, and despite wishful thinking there are few effective shortcuts.
K. Jack Riley is associate director of the Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division and Greg Ridgeway is associate director of the Safety and Justice program at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post's Think Tank Town on October 11, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.