September 28, 2005 | National Review Online

Garden-State-Variety Profiling Hysteria

Don't dismiss a necessary tool in the war on terror.

“Profiling” has entered that pantheon of words and phrases (“torture,” “marketplace of ideas,” “compassion,” etc.) the mere utterance of which paralyzes thought. Arguments over it have a ships-passing-in-the-night quality–such that it has become impossible to be sure, in the face of an accusation, what the suspected “profiler” has allegedly done.

A report about a new profiling controversy in Tuesday's Newark Star Ledger is typical. Clear away the underbrush of pious indignation and you're left in the dark about just what New Jersey law-enforcement authorities have supposedly done and why it should, or should not, merit our reproach.

Here's what we know. Like other states, New Jersey has an office dedicated to counterterrorism. That office is trying to come up with a terrorist database. It files data, including reports on individuals, into an electronic system which state agencies can then use as an investigative resource.

Sounds simple enough. Except now the New Jersey State Police are refusing to accept reports from the counterterrorism office after allegedly “finding numerous entries targeting people merely because they practice Islam or have connections to Muslim groups.”

Sure as night follows day, the Star Ledger reports that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council (AMC), and an association of mosques instantly cried foul. On cue, Senator John Corzine and Doug Forrester, his Republican opponent in the ongoing gubernatorial campaign, are tripping over themselves to see who can condemn “profiling” more emphatically.

A little history is in order, though. It happens that the darlings of this theater, the State Police, have a checkered record. They were famously accused in recent years of profiling. The actual, noxious kind. The kind in which members of a particular group (African Americans — and, specifically in the troopers' case, young black men) were said to be subjected to investigative stops and searches (especially on the state's highways) merely because of their race. With that legacy, and the catcalls they are still hearing about it, the troopers are naturally quick to pounce at the slightest whiff of profiling by anyone else.

Thus it is to his credit that the acting governor, Democrat Richard Codey, appears to be refraining from the knee-jerk, P.C.-outrage game. He has rightly expressed concern over whether entries into the state's terrorism database have been triggered by adequate grounds for suspicion, and has given state officials three weeks to come up with a set of standards.

The question is this: Are people being entered into the system solely because they happen to be Muslims?

That, of course, would be wrong. But, grousing to the contrary notwithstanding, it does not follow from this premise that it would also be wrong — that it would amount to improper profiling — for police to consider, in addition to other facts, the fact that a person practices Islam. Or that he has “connections to Muslim groups” — especially if we are talking about groups that may have a track record of supporting terrorism.

CAIR, the AMC, and other Islamic groups, the Star Ledger informs us, are voicing “long-standing fears of unequal treatment” for Muslims. Of far longer standing, however, is the fact of life that there is no greater iniquity than treating as equal things which are not. In the consideration of modern terrorism, Muslims and others simply do not stand as equals.

The interest groups would undeniably have a point if the global scourge of terrorism cut across sectarian lines. Broadly speaking, though, it does not. The vast majority of the terrorism committed in the world, and virtually all of the terrorism targeted against the United States for the past dozen years, has been spawned by radical Islam.

This is obviously why the interest groups are trying mightily to alter the underlying assumptions of counterterrorist theory. Terrorism, they insist, is a reaction to political conditions; it is not doctrinal in nature. But this conflates context with cause. On the same account, one could argue that, say, mafia racketeering is an economic phenomenon, unrelated to any sort of criminal culture.

And facts being stubborn things, the activists have three hurdles they can't clear. First, it is never an acceptable response to “political” disputes to mass-murder civilians — civilized people do not make their points that way. Second, while political disputes are similar the world over, the people who have reacted to them by bombings (and who, in Israel, claim the right to regard civilians, including children, as legitimately targeted combatants) have almost exclusively been Muslims. And third, regardless of how partisans seek to explain away the atrocities, the militants actually committing them tell us, unabashedly, that it is Islam which commands them to act.

Islam, therefore, cannot sensibly be thought irrelevant to the formulation of precautions to be taken against what is, incontestably, Islamic terrorism. That does not come close to meaning every Muslim should be in a terrorist database. But there are many who should, and that regrettable situation will obtain until terrorism stops being committed on a singular scale by Muslims. And, significantly, until the self-appointed representatives of Islamic interests stop saying lamebrain things, like that blowing up people and buildings is an understandable “political” response to anything.

So far, we don't know what New Jersey's counterterrorism office has done. Obviously, if all investigators know about someone is that he is a practicing Muslim, that's not a good enough reason to put him in a database of suspected and potential terrorists. But Islamic militants are Muslims, and non-Muslims are not Islamic militants, so the fact that one practices Islam is clearly germane.

In the current enforcement environment, we are trying to prevent acts of terror from occurring, rather than contenting ourselves with prosecuting after the murderous fact. That approach cannot — cannot — rationally be put in place without developing a profile on likely terrorists. Being a Muslim is an unavoidable part of that profile.

There is nothing wrong with profiling a known, ongoing threat. In fact, people charged with protecting us would be irresponsible if they failed to do so. Moreover, just as we know the militants are Muslims, so, too, we know that the vast majority of Muslims are not militants. There is consequently a lot more to the equation than just religious affiliation.

A Muslim goes to the mosque. So what? That proves nothing. But does he go to a mosque that is known to promote violent jihad? That, to the contrary, would be a very big deal. We know that such mosques have catalyzed terrorists in the past. Plus, there are lots of mosques that don't preach that sort of thing, so if a Muslim chooses to attend the radical mosque, why should we not take that into account? It would be reckless not to.

A Muslim gives to charity. Again, who cares? We should all give to charity. But if they are charities with a history of underwriting terrorist organizations, that is not something that can responsibly be ignored. Maybe the individual Muslim in question doesn't know — but why is that a risk society should take? After all, what we are talking about here is who might merit investigation. No one is being locked up for being in a database.

Suspecting people because of who they are rather than what they do is unacceptable. But ignoring who they are in the course of scrutinizing what they do is equally unacceptable if — as with militant Islam, Italian mafia groups, Russian organized crime, Chinese tongs, etc. — who they are is relevant to the determination of whether they are likely to pose a threat.

So let's see what standards New Jersey has been applying, and what final standards it settles on, before we go crazy. Let's make sure they don't place too much stock in religious affiliation, but let's not pretend that they could or should ignore it, either.

And in the meantime, here are three questions for Sen. Corzine and Mr. Forrester: Do you think Americans are threatened by Islamic terrorism? If we are, don't you think that in trying to prevent Islamic terrorism it is proper for the police to consider whether someone is actually Islamic? If so, what exactly are you condemning when you condemn “profiling”?

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.