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The Hunt for Terrorists Runs Up Against Political Correctness
By Heather Mac Donald
After 9/11, the FBI investigated hundreds of thousands of terrorist tips and ultimately picked up a mere 1,200 men, mostly illegal immigrants, for questioning. The government detained some for weeks or sometimes months, checking out their backgrounds, before deporting or releasing them.
The vast majority of the men were Muslim. And any investigation of Islamic terror cells worth its salt will turn up . . . Muslims! But so charged and distorted has the debate about policing and race become over the last decade that it is now professional suicide to say that, in hunting Islamic terrorists, one is going to look for and find Muslims.
It is a misnomer to call such an inevitable practice “racial profiling,” as the term is commonly used. “Racial profiling,” as the elites imagine it, takes place when police play the odds about crimes that all groups commit, but at different rates. Looking for Muslims for participation in Muslim jihad is not playing the odds, it is following an ironclad tautology. Nevertheless, anti-police and Arab advocates have co-opted the discourse about racial profiling to tar all rational law-enforcement efforts against Islamic terrorism as an outgrowth of blind prejudice.
Thus, the New York Times reported ominously that the post-9/11 detentions showed signs of “profiling.” According to this stupendous illogic, a non-biased investigation of Islamic terrorism would detain proportionate samples of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Hindus.
If the FBI and police have to defend themselves against charges of bigotry whenever they investigate or arrest Muslims on suspicion of Islamic terrorism, it’s going to be quite difficult to fight Islamic terrorism. But that is precisely what investigators are up against. When three of the 1,200 detainees were indicted in Detroit this August for operating a terrorist support cell that was infiltrating the Detroit International Airport, local Muslim leaders denounced the indictments as just another instance of racist stereotyping. “There is a feeling in our community of being a victim, which is a painful experience after September 11” complained Mohamad Elahi, imam of the Dearborn Heights mosque.
Complaints of bias also greeted the arrest of members of another alleged terrorist cell in upstate New York, indicted this September. “This is a crime of terror by the FBI on the people of Lackawanna,” explained a protester outside the courthouse where the six men were being charged.
Cracking down on the crimes that make terrorism possible, above all identity fraud, also risks charges of discrimination. This August, the government charged 14 Detroit-area men, including six physicians, with providing phony documents to immigrants. “Is the government only targeting Arab-American doctors?” asked Imad Hamad of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. In the strange logic of these advocates, the defendants, arrested and indicted for serious crimes, were more sinned against than sinning.
This inflamed sense of grievance now leads Muslim spokesmen to equate minor inconveniences—such .as being questioned at an airport—with major rights abuses. Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini, imam of the Irvine, California, chapter of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, exemplifies the disjuncture between the actual Muslim experience in America after 9/11 and the rhetoric used to describe it. A courteous, round-faced man, with a short dark beard and rimless glasses, who casually drops the names of Condoleezza Rice and President Bush, Mr. al-Qazwini has flown 20 times since September 2001, both domestically and abroad, and he has been searched only. once. Yet Of that one time, he asks heatedly—“Why did they turn me into an animal and deal with me in a disgraceful manner, just because my passport was Iraqi?” The “disgrace” consisted in being interrogated for half an hour about his mosque and whether the congregation was Sunni or Shia. Mr. al-Qazwini is not willing to cut security personnel any slack. “They should have commonsense that not all Iraqis are terrorists” he asserts. But in 95% of his flights, they assumed just that. To expect to fly search-free 100% of the time is ludicrous, given the enemy status of Iraq.
If occasional interrogation before flying is now the equivalent of being “turned into an animal,” it’s hard to see how America can go forward with any rational security measures. But such hyperbole is now standard. A cartoon in Islamic Discourse magazine, a publication of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, shows two doors at an airline gate. The word “White” has been crossed out and “American” written in its stead on one; the word “Colored” has been replaced with “Arab-American” on the other. By no stretch of the imagination are post-9/11 security measures close to Jim Crow laws, but Arab advocacy groups have usurped the mantle of black victimhood to put anti-terror efforts on the defensive.
When our national leaders are unwilling even to name the enemy correctly, it’s no wonder that the advocates and the media have stepped into the breach with victimology. In speech after speech, Mr. Bush refuses to identify our nemesis as “Islamic terrorism,” preferring instead the vaguer terrorism, a generality that won’t offend any religious or ethnic group.
Not giving offence now seems equal in importance to protecting the nation. Following the president’s lead, Transportation Secretary Mineta, in his now-infamous 60 Minutes interview, said he would “hope” that a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach, Florida, and a young, Muslim male from Jersey City would receive the same level of scrutiny when boarding an. airplane. And, alas, they do.
Mr. Bush could have put an end to such charades had he explained to the nation that, because Osama bin Laden has called on all Muslim, not all Protestants or Jews, to kill Americans wherever they find them, we would have to give a little more scrutiny to people from certain parts of the world who seek to enter the country or assume high-security positions. These are minor inconveniences compared with the catastrophe that we are trying to avert, he could have said, and we ask for the patience and understanding of people subjected to greater inquiries about their purposes.
In the absence of such a public explanation, the elites and the advocates continue to turn every reasonable security measure into another cause for grievance. Last fall, the Justice Department sought to interview about 5,000 young men from Middle Eastern and other terror-breeding countries who had entered America on short-term visas over the last two years, as had all the 9/11 hijackers. The interviews were voluntary, innocuous, and could be refused without consequence. Every civil liberties and Arab advocacy group rose up against the plan, portraying it, in the words of Islamic Discourse magazine, as “another wave of threats to our civil liberties.”
The fear of giving offense also hampers needed changes in immigration policy. If we were serious about preventing more terrorists coming to our soil, we would impose a moratorium on immigration and visitor visas from the countries most likely to export terrorism, until our intelligence services were capable of detecting our enemies. We would suspend the student-visa program until we had a foolproof system in place for tracking foreign students.
Instead, we have taken half-measures that do not provide any assurance of safety. But those half-measures have generated just as much outcry as real measures would have. Both the New:York Times and the Washington Post have bemoaned the fact that the State Department is taking longer than usual to process student visas from Middle Eastern and other terror-sponsoring countries. The resulting delays, warns the Times, are “generating widespread hostility” among Muslim men. Perhaps the Time s has forgotten a far more lethal “hostility” among Muslim men that killed 3,000 people on 9/11.
The opinion elites, however, turn out to be hypocritically opportunistic when it comes to charges of profiling. Having worked themselves into a lather after 9/11 over the possibility that the Justice Department might use Middle Eastern or Muslim heritage as a factor in anti-terrorism investigations, they turned on a dime when doing so offered them a chance to beat up on the Bush Justice Department.
In May 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams wrote his supervisors that Al Qaeda members might be training in U.S. flight schools. He had been observing several Islamists enrolled in an Arizona aviation academy, one of whom had told him that he considered the U.S. government and military legitimate targets of Islam. Another man who attracted Mr. Williams’s suspicion, it was later discovered, had associated with 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour and may have screened other Al Qaeda pilots. In his memo, Mr. Williams requested that the Bureau check out other Middle Eastern flight students for Al Qaeda ties.
It is not hard to guess why the FBI ignored Mr. Williams’s request. Had word leaked out that the Bureau was investigating Muslim aviation trainees, the nation’s newspapers, networks, and advocates would have burst forth in one mighty roar of “Racism.”
So when the Williams memo surfaced in May 2002, the media, the victims,’ lobby, and the legal professoriat berated Mr. Williams for his prejudices, right? Wrong: They 1ionized him for his prescience. Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, the organization that has done more than any other to make “racial profiling” the equivalent of “genocide” wins the prize for the most blatant hypocrisy. “It surprises me that the FBI was worried about racial profiling criticism,” she cooed on National Public Radio. “The. Phoenix flight-school memo was good policing,”
The New York Times nearly equals Ms. Strossen in shameless self-contradiction. It editorialized that the FBI’s “fumbling” of the Arizona terrorist warning constituted an “egregious failure.” Never mind that before May 2001, and continuing to this day, the Times has been the nation’s most powerful voice berating the police for what it charged was their use of race and ethnicity in investigatory stops.
Such little moments of clarity, even if motivated by bad faith, have been rare since 9/11. The time is past for preening fantasies aimed at boosting the elites’ self-image as a bulwark against imagined American injustice. Yet the guardians of politically correct opinion have held on to their fondest fictions, despite their destructive effects on national security.
Ms. Mac Donald is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. Adapted from the Autumn edition of City Journal.
©2002 New York Sun
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