Because Arab Americans and American Muslims have been waiting to see when the Obama Administration would finally act to end Bush-era ethnic and religious profiling guidelines and practices, we were troubled to read press accounts this week indicating that Attorney General Eric Holder may be proposing to keep in place many of the programs that have so compromised our rights. We have been waiting for five years for the Obama Administration to end these practices. Now we fear that they may not.
The Arab American and American Muslim communities have a long and troubled history of ethnic profiling. During the mid-1990's, for example, people of Arab descent were routinely pulled out of line at airport check-in counters and subjected to humiliating searches in public view. I can speak from experience, having been on the receiving end of such behaviors during this period. The process of being singled out, rudely searched, and treated as a suspect in front of fellow passengers was hurtful and embarrassing. When I was eventually allowed to board the plane, the glares from other passengers made the experience even more uncomfortable.
I testified against this kind of "subjective profiling" before Congress and a special commission headed by Vice-President Gore, and challenged the FAA to provide even one example where profiling had resulted in apprehending a threat to air safety. They could not. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, the Gore Commission recommended ending this practice at domestic airports.
During a 2000 presidential campaign debate, George W. Bush pledged to end all profiling against Arab Americans. A few days later, Al Gore did as well. The elation of some in our community proved to be premature.
After the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice indiscriminately rounded-up Arab immigrants for deportation, instituted mass call-ins of immigrants from all Arab and Muslim countries, and gave free rein to the Customs and Border Patrol to single out Arab Americans and American Muslims returning to the US from Canada. They searched laptops, phones, and files and humiliated them in front of their families and traveling companions.
In 2003, Bush's Attorney General, John Ashcroft, institutionalized this discrimination when he issued guidelines that banned the practice of profiling but left open a wide national security loophole. It was this loophole that provided cover and justification for the outrageous New York Police Department/CIA "demographic" mapping program.
This NYPD program can best be described as "profiling run amok". With CIA guidance, the NYPD coerced frightened, vulnerable immigrants to act as spies within their own communities. They were sent into mosques, Arab-owned places of business, and social halls throughout the metropolitan area and told to report back. They gathered information on which groups were there, the conversations they overheard, and which TV stations were being watched. The material was collected in a series of "Location of Interest" reports on each of the city's Arab and Muslim communities.
These "reports", which were discovered and released in a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press articles, reminded many Arab immigrants of the activities of the Mukhabarat (the notorious secret police that operate in some Arab countries). The way the information in these reports was collected, presented, and used is frightening in that they treat an entire community of hundreds of thousands of innocent people as a suspect group.
This NYPD/CIA operation is but one, albeit extreme, example of ethnic and religious profiling which, if left unchecked, threatens to shred our basic rights as Americans.
Instead of immediately closing the Bush-era loophole, the Obama Administration has continued to operate under the Ashcroft guidelines for the past five years. In the aftermath of the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airline flight in 2009, this Administration even instituted its own massive indiscriminate airport profiling program against Arab and Muslim passengers.
Attorney General Eric Holder once said that law enforcement should only monitor activity "when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur." Unless the simple act of being an Arab in New York or being an Arab in an airport is sufficient indicators of inappropriate behavior, I believe that the Attorney General ought to act to enforce his own words.
The use of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling by law enforcement is un-American and should end. Targeting people for what they look like or because of their group characteristics is discrimination at its worst and a poor excuse for law enforcement. By casting a large net and targeting an entire racial or ethnic group instead of focusing on specific behaviors, law enforcement not only wastes precious resources, it also runs the risk of breaking trust and alienating communities who can be helpful allies in building partnerships.
Arab Americans and American Muslims want to work with law enforcement to keep our country secure, but we want to be treated as full citizens and partners. The odious practices of profiling and group surveillance treat us, instead, as suspects.
We believe that it is time for the Obama Administration to close the Bush-era profiling loophole and end the NYPD/CIA project.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.