Stanford Progressive

The Death of Profiling and Other Consequences of the Crotch Bomber

By Ilias Karim, published March, 2010


A familiar resurgence of fear and anger has arisen from the near ashes of Flight 253. What almost ended in disaster instead benefited and harmed America in indirect ways. While none of these benefits would compare to the loss of a single life, they offer a silver lining that is lost in the usual fear-mongering and sensationalism. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab unwittingly supplied the final nail in the coffin of racial profiling as a security measure. However, increased political pressure to consolidate the Terrorist Watch List and No-Fly list may pose a novel risk to civil liberties.

Unsurprisingly, Americans reacted to the attack with an increased willingness to short-change the rights of various minorities. Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Kikind recently called for authorities to engage in ethnic profiling. A USA Today/Gallup Polls from January 8th shows that although there is no significant increase in Americans “expressing concern that they or their families might be victims of terrorism,” the number of adults who are in favor of ethnic, age, and gender profiling remains at 71% compared to 27% opposed.

Umar’s contribution to the fight against ethnic profiling comes from finally giving opponents an image to match words. The tired chant of “not all Muslims are Arab, not all Arabs are Muslim” falls on deaf ears when compared to a picture of Osama Bin Laden. Now there is a specific event and image to make the point clear: if ethnic profiling was the norm, an Al Qaeda-connected terrorist would have moved through airport security line. It is hard to imagine a politician or pundit who would suggest profiling Africans alongside Arabs.

In general, proponents of ethnic profiling mix up Islamophobia with actual safety concerns. Those who are paranoid about flying with a Muslim should rationally feel safest if that Muslim has a full, thick beard, orthodox Muslim clothing, and other signs of religiosity. No hijacker operating in Europe or America has walked into an airport looking like a stereotypical religious extremist. They cut their hair, shave their beards, and put on a suit. Yet it is the externally religious Muslims that strike fear into the hearts of profiling proponents.

Other criteria for profiling, like education level or gender, are also insufficient. Suicide bombers are more likely than their foot soldier counterparts to have a degree in higher education. Although the average age of Al Qaeda suicide bombers operating outside the Middle East is 25 with a deviation of 4 to 5 years, if age-based profiling takes effect terrorists can easily turn to older or younger culprits. When it comes to gender profiling, Al Qaeda can now turn to women for the role of suicide bombers. Terrorists can easily capitalize on any set of physical characteristics Americans decide to profile.

Finally, the very reasoning employed by most Islamophobics and ethnic/religious profilers guarantees that profiling based on religious declaration will be fruitless. Some proponents of ethnic and religious profiling cite the Shia concept of “Taqiyya,” lying about being Muslim. Some terrorist groups have coopted this doctrine to justify Muslims lying about their religious affiliation. If “Taqiyya” is a true threat, then it is nonsensical to profile passengers by their self-ascribed religious identity.

Airport security should engage in profiling, but it should be behavioral, and not ethnic, profiling. Security personnel already use Paul Ekman’s research in microexpressions to identify potential threats by their emotional state, from extreme fear to violent anger. More generally, profilers can look for the behavioral characteristics associated with the trance state suicide bombers tend to put themselves in before passing security.

One worrying effect of this attack is increased pressure to lower standards for transferring names from the watch-list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), to the No-Fly list. Umar’s father told the government that he was worried about his son. This should be enough to put him on a list for investigation. However, that alone should not qualify someone for the No-Fly list. It is one thing to have a father call in a tip, but what if a neighbor calls to tell the TSA that their Muslim neighbor has been acting strangely? Wouldn’t it be strange, some might say, if a Muslim neighbor suddenly began praying in public?

A failed terrorist attack acts like a vaccine. It simultaneously prepares security forces for one threat while guaranteeing there will eventually be a mutation which bypasses those measures. The Crotch Bomber followed the Liquid Bomber who followed the Shoe Bomber. What differentiates Umar Abdulmuttalab from other failed terrorist attacks is the rhetorical significance of having an image that stands out from the gallery of Arab terrorists that proponents of ethnic profiling cite. The political advantages and dangers resulting from the Crotch Bomber must be recognized and preempted before proponents of profiling frame this as another win for Islamophobia and racism.


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