“Travelling Whilst Asian”

Is the UK really considering adding an offense to British law called “travelling whilst Asian” by considering whether to profile young Muslim men in airport security? This is the accusation made by Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, one of England’s “most senior Muslim police officers.”

Dizaei was speaking in reaction to plans to speed up delays at airports by introducing new security measures which include examinations of travel history and how a ticket is purchased and frequency of travel but also of ethnic and religious background. Indeed, former Scotland Yard chief Lord Stevens specifically suggested reducing congestion in British airports by “targeting passengers for more rigorous checks, with ‘young Muslim men’ a focus.” Dizaei, for his part, states that “I don’t think there’s a stereotypical image of a terrorist.” It makes sense to ask, at this point, whether this is really true or not.

Lord Stevens, as reported by CNN, does not believe this is true. CNN quotes an article he wrote in another newspaper in which he writes that

I’m a white 62-year-old 6ft 4in suit-wearing ex-cop — I fly often, but do I really fit the profile of suicide bomber?

“Does the young mum with three tots? The gay couple, the rugby team, the middle-aged businessman? No. But they are all getting exactly the same amount and devouring huge resources for no logical reason whatsoever.

“Yet the truth is Islamic terrorism in the West has been universally carried out by young Muslim men, usually of ethnic appearance, almost always traveling alone or in very small groups.

“A tiny percentage, I bet, of those delayed today have such characteristics.

“Of course, there will be instant squealings that this is racism. It’s not. It’s exactly the same as recognizing that, during the Northern Ireland troubles that left thousands dead, the IRA were totally based in the Catholic community and the UVF in the Protestant.” (emphasis added.)

Of course, whether Lord Stevens is correct or not might be entirely beside the point. For instance, even if he is correct that there is a valid profile of who is most likely to be a suicide bombing terrorist, perhaps this doesn’t matter? In other words, is there a reason that all in society need to be equally inconvenienced and scrutinized even if we are able to “profile” who is most likely to be a terrorist?

This debate reminds me of a treatment of “rational profiling” in America’s airports written by a lawschool classmate of mine soon after 9/11. He made use of the “Richard Kimble” example of what he termed “rational” (rather than “racial”) profiling:

In the 1993 movie The Fugitive, Harrison Ford played Dr. Richard Kimble, an affluent Chicago surgeon who returns home one night to find his wife murdered and her murderer — a one-armed man — escaping. Kimble is charged with the crime, convicted, sent to prison, then escapes and spends the rest of the movie tracking down the one-armed man using a fairly straightforward methodology. First, he compares the type of prosthetic arm he had seen the murderer wearing to a hospital’s database and compiles a list of people who had been fitted with such a device. Kimble then uses other factors (such as the age of the patient, whether the prosthetic arm was on the right or left-hand, etc.) to narrow the list to five candidates. He then tracks down each candidate, one of whom turns out to be his wife’s murderer. The one-armed man is arrested and Kimble exonerated.

Perhaps Richard Kimble was on to something. Imagine what would have happened had Kimble conducted his search without considering “the one identifiable fact [he] knew about [the murderer].” He would have spent years searching the entire population of Chicago, two-armed and one-armed alike, male and female, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and so on. Faced with such a daunting task, he likely would have given up his search and turned himself in to the U.S. Marshals.

Consider this example in light of the September 11 attacks. All nineteen hijackers were adult males of middle-eastern ethnicity. What might happen if America ignores the identifiable facts we know about hijackers? The FTSA must decide whether to modify current profiling procedures to include consideration of race, gender, and age. The following sections will discuss some of the legal arguments for and against such a policy, compare and contrast airport profiling to other instances of profiling, and explain current airport profiling procedures. (R. Spencer MacDonald, Rational Profiling in America’s Airports, 17 BYU J. Pub. L. 113, 115-16 (2002) (emphasis added).)

Are there ways in which the Richard Kimble example breaks down or becomes invalid when speaking of Muslim suicide terrorism? Is such “profiling” based on ethnic and/or religious background possible in the UK where it is not in the United States because of differences in law; that is, are objections to rational profiling in America’s airports based on constitutional/Bill-of-Rights arguments that would not constrain or apply in the UK, thus allowing the UK to institute profiling? And if the UK did introduce such profiling, would that be equivalent to the creation of a new offense of “travelling whilst Asian”?

One comment

  1. Do we think that after 7/7 the Met looked at CCTV footage with equal suspicion for old grannies carrying bags?! We should be glad they didn’t; it would have been a colossal waste of time. Policing can never be perfect, but we must give ourselves the best odds. I empathise with Dizaei in a way — racial profiling can have nasty connotations — but I’m afraid that we have no choice unless we are willing to spend colossal amounts of money and time considering everyone an equal suspect.


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