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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On racial profiling

Top solicitor Stephen Grosz presents the case against 'racial profiling' as a weapon in the fight against terrorism. Norm is impressed. Grumpy less so.

Scenario One: a woman has been raped and murdered in my neighbourhood. With no leads to go on, the police knock on my door, wanting to eliminate me from their enquiries. Would it be reasonable for me to refuse to cooperate unless they spend an equal amount of time eliminating my wife?

Scenario Two: a spate of terrorist attacks have in common the fact that they were all committed by Zimbabwean Jewish emeritus professors. Would it be a gross violation of Norm's human rights if the police were to take a certain amount of interest in him?

My point: equality of suspicion is a bogus human right, because it requires the police to treat a falsehood as truth and, carried to its logical conclusion, would make their job virtually impossible. It's a copper's job to suspect all of us (which is of course why socializing with them is not a universally popular pastime), but to suspect some more than others.

There's been an interesting moving of goalposts here. The original campaign against stop and search was based on the premise that young black men were being targetted for no better reason than the average copper's penchant for a spot of racial harassment. How far this was true and how far the perception was systematically promoted by people with a political agenda to discredit the police is a question which I leave open. The point is that to the extent that it was true it was wholly unacceptable.

In the fight against terrorism, on the other hand, it is absolutely clear that this is not the case. The 'profile' has not been invented by the police, it has been created by the criminals themselves.

For al-Qaida, I regret to say, is not an equal opportunities employer. It does not delay an operation until it can fill the post of Bomber with a Chinese lesbian. Allowing the police to act on this knowledge in the interests of preventing mass murder does not mean giving them a licence for harassment. But Grosz is not interested in drawing the distinction. The victims (with or without quotes) of profiling are equally entitled in both cases to cry 'racism' and find themselves a good human rights lawyer.

Of course racial profiling is an admission of failure - that it is better to proceed on the basis of evidence against specific individuals falls squarely under the heading of the Bleeding Obvious. The question is, what are the police to do when no such evidence is available? Stopping young Muslim men at random is a highly inefficient use of police time. Stopping random members of the population as a whole is about a hundred times more inefficient.

And how far are we take the 'no profiling' argument? Is it legitimate for the police to interest themselves in particular Islamist organizations or particular mosques, even if it is clear that the majority of members/worshippers are not terrorists? There are evidently plenty of Muslims for whom this is already a step too far.

Remember we are talking about a matter of life and death (for young Muslim men just as for everybody else), and remember we are talking about the usage of limited resources. Wasting police time is an offence. We should not be forcing the police to commit it.

Of course there is another argument against profiling. '[T]argeting causes resentment and disaffection' says Grosz, delicately declining to spell out an implication that sits distinctly uncomfortably with the rest of his argument: if resentment and disaffection are caused within a group from which terrorists are already disproportionately drawn, who knows what forms of expression they may find? Once we go down this route we leave the discourse of human rights far behind.

We would do well to remember also that resentment and disaffection are not necessarily the sole preserve of minorities. If political correctness (which, pace Grosz, is what his argument amounts to) is perceived to be overriding the protection of life and limb, the explosive mixture of resentment and disaffection with mistrust and fear is likely to lead to more, not fewer, incidents of the flight 613 variety.

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