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Refuting Michael Kinsley

This time Michael Kinsley goes for the jugular (When Is Racial Profiling Okay, September 30). He proposes for America to stick to an old but abhorrent tradition of compromising civil liberties when national security is threatened regardless of the demonstrated lack of utility of such a tradition. His numerous arguments in support of racial profiling of Arabs appeal to many things except to commonsense despite his effort to pepper his analysis with objective sounding words such as “statistical” (5 times) and “rational” (6 times).

But let’s assume Kinsley is on to something here.

Before we start let’s see if we can define who is an “Arab-looking man.” Since there is no legal or scientific definition, Kinsley could be referring to common stereotypes such as a hooked nose, swarthy complexion, facial hair, and other physically unattractive attributes by Western standards. It’s the images of Arabs most Americans have been conditioned by Hollywood to hate and to look out for. This stereotype excludes fair-looking Arabs from many Mediterranean regions as well as Black Arabs from African countries such as Sudan, Somal, and Mauritania. This exclusion leaves out a pretty sizable chunk of Arabs.

Then there are Christian Arabs who account for over 50% of Arab Americans. No Christian Arab has been involved in the hijacking of airplanes in recent memory. If we are to exclude them from the profile what system will we use to identify someone’s religion? Will airport security ask a passenger about his religion? Or will it be based on the person’s name. What if a person legally changes his names from Ali to Al? Or what if they refuse to acknowledge their religion of birth when asked? Will they be prosecuted for lying or will the Federal government enforce a caste system by which Muslim Arabs will be issued a special social security number that will trigger certain flags at security checkpoints. How about federally mandated green armbands for all Arab-men in US airports?

From past experience with airport profiling systems already in place, even Hispanics and South Asians have been flagged because they fit some aspects of the Arab racial profile.

Should ethnic groups who share some of the stereotypes with Arabs go along with racial profiling for the sake of God and Country? Should those people of color not mind the “intrusive inspection” since their reward too is that “they don’t want to be hijacked and blown up either” while other fellow Americans move about unimpeded.

Kinsley casts a wide but malformed net in his effort to promote racial profiling but he offers no answers to the many problematic questions despite his allegedly rational arguments and statistical calculations.

Kinsley bravely admits the “likelihood is infinitesimal” that an Arab-looking man would hijack a commercial jetliner. Yet he has no issue with holding a whole ethnic group hostage to a system that has guilt by association at its core. This is collective punishment regardless of the articulated aims and concerns. And for how long should Arab-looking men have to suffer this indignity? Will there be a probation period for Arab-looking men after which the collective punishment will end?

The other problem with racial profiling is that it is never limited to airports. Arab-looking men who drive vans and trucks will be profiled as well as Arabs who access the Internet from public libraries; and those who buy fertilizers at The Home Depot for their backyards. As for Arab-looking men who decide to take flying lessons, they should forget about it.

If all Arab-looking men should be profiled because of an “infinitesimal” chance a few may cause grave harm, what stops Kinsley from going after Hispanics or Russians too? Or even people infected with the AIDS virus.

Think of the impact Kinsley’s racial profiling system could have on the war against illicit drugs. Profile every Hispanic and Russian crossing US borders and there could be a major reduction in drug trafficking and drug related crimes. True it’s an insignificant minority of Hispanics and Russians who are engaged in the drug trade, but according to Kinsley such profiling is an acceptable price for the thousands of lives that could be spared every year from drug related crimes and ailments. The lives saved could eclipse those lost in the September 11 terror attack. That should fit nicely within Kinsley’s rational statistical analysis and meet his criteria for acceptable non-racist discrimination.

Kinsley might as well demand the profiling of people infected with the AIDS virus by subjecting all Gay-looking men (let Hollywood determine the profile) to blood tests. After all, the AIDS epidemic has killed millions to date. It’s estimated millions more will die from this deadly disease. The potential for saving human lives, not just by the thousands, but also by the millions, should fill Kinsley with delight at the prospects.

But is saving lives what purely motivates Kinsley? The overwhelming majority of victims of drug abuse and drug-related crimes as well as AIDS are not predominantly from America’s middle and upper class.

So after calculating political and economic costs and benefits, and engaging in moral acrobatics, even the most controversial security policies will sound reasonable given the appropriate circumstances. It seems when it comes to Arabs, Kinsley found little political price to be paid. His timing couldn’t have been any better to advance his agenda.

Before he wraps up his column, Kinsley reinforces his flank since it’s inevitable for people of color in the US who have been hurt in the past by racial stereotyping to object to his call for racial profiling and to come to the rescue of Arab-Americans. “Racial profiling and affirmative action are analytically the same thing” he argues. For political expediency, Kinsley waves his magic wand and transforms affirmative action into another form of acceptable discrimination. His message is simple: if you wish to end one form of discrimination against Arabs, you may have to end discrimination in the form of affirmative action. So attention people of color, take your affirmative action and run with it. Leave the Arabs to Kinsley.

If we think Kinsley’s call for rational discrimination stops at airport security, think again. What sent chills through my spine is Kinsley’s assertion that when counter terrorism squads storm “a plane looking for the person who has planted a bomb somewhere, there isn’t time to avoid valid generalizations and treat each person as an individual.” There is so much callousness in Kinsley’s point which clearly suggests that Arab-looking hostages on a hijacked airplane can be taken out in the heat of the moment.

In the end, Kinsley decides that the price of racial profiling is “pretty small” and it’s a matter of “inconvenience and embarrassment.” I wonder if Kinsley is capable of imagining how terribly cruel it would be for a young Arab American to be subjected to the special treatment in front of his peers and to grow up with the stigma of being the usual suspect and a national security threat to his own country. May be Kinsley will offer Arab-American parents some advice on what they should tell their children when they are the only ones being stopped for “intrusive inspections” while others who don ‘t look like them are not. Should they tell them that in America guilt by association is legitimate, rational, and statistically sound?

This is not the first time we read of Michael Kinsley’s opinions about Arabs. At the start of the Palestinian Intifada last year it was Kinsley who described the Arab youth who captured and executed two undercover Israeli soldiers (not innocent civilians) in the Palestinian city of Ramallah as “a piece of shit posing as a human being” and called other Arabs nearby “turds.” Such statements hardly rise to the level of professional journalism. Yet in the days before and after this bloody incident, Israeli soldiers shot and killed dozens of unarmed Arab civilians many of whom were children bystanders. Kinsley for some reason had no strong views on the subject of the killing of innocent Arab civilians by Western Israelis. That’s the same Michael Kinsley who does not believe extra frequent flyer miles are necessary as token reparation for the proposed institutional discrimination against Arab-Americans.

What’s an alternative solution to Kinsley’s racial profiling system?

At the entrances of many stadiums in the US, every person is searched regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. No racial profiling system is used and none is needed. This system might be less cost-effective and the lines will tend to be long. But with more security personnel, the lines can be shortened. This system is fair to all. There is beauty in simplicity.

We spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build weapon systems to defend our country. Shouldn’t we spend a fraction of that to defend what our country stands for?

On September 11, nearly 6000 Americans lost their lives. Hundreds of those victims were ethnic Arabs and others from the Muslim faith. Why add to the pain and grieve of Arab and Muslim American families and communities who are already being subjected to a racist backlash despite the government’s best efforts. Kinsley’s proposition is an extension to the backlash. CP

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