Racial Profiling and Counterterrorism

The Examiner editorial board weighs into the controversial description of 17 Middle Eastern terrorists suspects arrested in Canada last week as coming from “the broad strata of our community.”

[I]n the PC world — where no culture is any “better” or “worse” than any other — nobody is allowed to speak in any way that might ever be conceived as an ethnic or nationalistic slight. That is why the “they are just like us” meme is such a familiar part of the official and mainstream media descriptions of those accused of terrorist planning and crimes.

It is also why gray-haired grandmothers from Dubuque and even a World War II Medal of Honor winner are just as likely to be stopped and searched at the airport as the bearded 21-year-old Abdul from Cairo.

While I agree with my colleague Steve Verdon (here and here) that there are plenty of terrorists, including Islamist ones, who are of European, African, and Asian descent, I agree with the Examiner that profiling and common sense should play a role in the screening process. (Indeed, Steve says as much in a footnote in the initial post.)

Ed Morrissey gets it right when he writes,

We cannot win this war while we ignore the lines of communication from the enemy. We certainly cannot win any war if we remain afraid to name our enemy. Western governments want to pretend that our enemy is a tactic rather than a person, and so play a little dance when the tactic continually gets used by one particular strain of religious fanatics — Islamists. This dance insults our intelligence, and it insults the intelligence of everyone else, our enemies included.

Still, although Lorie Byrd is axiomatically right when she observes, “To Fight Terrorism You Have To Correctly Identify The Enemy,” the enemy is jihadist killers, not young Arab men. The enemy is using teenage girls and old women as suicide bombers these days. They also have white co-conspirators, including the likes of John Walker Lindh. And black men such as the DC snipers and the would-be University of North Carolina killer. So, while young Arab men should reasonably receive more scrutiny than little old ladies, focusing exclusively on the former will let bad guys through; indeed, once the profile became evident, the enemy would use those who don’t fit the profile for most of their operations, with perhaps the occasional sacrificial Arab thrown in to keep us off the scent.

The logical implications of Morrissey’s argument is that we should focus especial attention on radical madrassahs and mosques–including one less than two miles from where I work–without apology. While undermining the training and recruiting ground for our domestic enemies without alienating the vast majority of Muslims who are non-jihadis is a neat trick, it has to be done. We can’t delude ourselves that Islam isn’t a part of the puzzle. Just as dangerous, though, is believing it’s the entire puzzle.

UPDATE: By way of background, the “broad strata” quote originates with Mike McDonnell, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “They’re all residents of Canada and for the most part, they’re all citizens.” McDonell said. “They represent the broad strata of our community. Some are students, some are employed, some are unemployed.”

It should be noted, though, that the very next line in the story is: “‘For various reasons. they appear to have become adherents of a violent ideology inspired by al Qaeda,’ said Luc Portelance, assistant director of operations at the Canadian spy service, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.”

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    I don’t quite get the snit-fit over how a *newspaper story* describes the accused terrorists.

    Are we relying on journalists to fight terrorism? God, I hope not.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The Examiner, at least, cites an unnamed RCMP official for the quote.

  3. ICallMasICM says:

    I’ts a broad strata of the terrorist population.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    I see that “broad strata” thing thusly,

    Asians in the U.S. occupy all strata of American life. Some are doctors, others are unemployed, some are highly educated others are not. Some are religious others are not. Yet, all of them are still Asian.

    Basically the point James is making, the enemy here are Jihadist killers, not all young arab males. Focusing totally on the latter will make us vulnerable in at least two ways.

    1. Terrorists noting such obsessive-compulsive focus will switch to non-arabs and even women.
    2. Resrouces will be used in chasing down those who are not terrorists.

    It is brain dead stupid and obvious to me, but apparently not to others.

  5. I’m not sure that “focusing” is the right word here, but John Walker Lindh and John Allen Muhammed seem more like the exception that proves the rule. And why does profiling have to mean looking exclusively at only certain people? This is a red herring. As is the aside about teenage girls and old women, since they generally just happen to share every attribute that characterizes male Arab Muslim terrorists save one.

    It certainly is not true that most male Arab Muslims in Europe, the US and the Middle East are terrorists, but it also seems pathologically self-delusional to say that most terrorists in Europe, the US and the Middle East are not male Arab Muslims. Please note that I did not say all.

    Even Rev. Jesse Jackson has admitted to being afraid if he is alone at night on the street and sees a group of young black men approaching him. Does that make him a racist? (I don’t think so, although there is plenty of other evidence to suggest that the Rev. Jackson does have a problem with racism.) Or is he merely applying “street smarts” to his situation and acting appropriately with a variant of profiling?

    Alas, until some utopian develops a foolproof test for always identifying terrorists without false positives, we will have to make the best with what we have, which includes the knowledge of likely profiles of terrorists. But I am curious, what would the ratio be of Minnesota grandmothers of Scandanavian descent who have been searched by the TSA in airports to Minnesota grandmothers of Scandanavian descent who have committed a terrorist act? Isn’t there a better way to use these scarce resources?

  6. RA says:

    It astounds and angers me how many so called conservatives suffer from ACLUitis! The constitution does not protect terrorist suspects and does not require us to commit suiscide.

    We must record all Muslim preachers in every service. We should not allow and Wahabi Muslims to immigrate or even vist.

    To do this we must destroy the ACLU first. Then Americans can enjoy a resonable and safe life.

  7. McGehee says:

    Terrorists noting such obsessive-compulsive focus…

    Well, see, that’s the thing. As Charles notes above, we’re not talking about going all Adrian Monk about brown people. The assumption that we are — well, that strikes me as brain-dead stupid.