Racial Profiling and the Battle Against Terrorism
Racial Profiling and the Battle Against Terrorism
As the government took steps to determine the identities of those who perpetrated the September 11 attacks, it undertook a nationwide dragnet to find accomplices and forestall a possible second wave of assaults. Investigators quickly learned that the nineteen hijackers reponsible for the tragedy all were young Middle Eastern males and followers of Islam. Those simple facts became overriding considerations in the government's reaction to the attacks and drove the continuing investigation.
The nation's fight against terror suddenly landed Americans in the middle of a national debate about racial profiling. Racial profiling is a practice in which law enforcement officials use race as a factor in deciding whether to target individuals for investigation. Some in government contend that the government has never engaged in the practice. In fact, Robert S. Mueller III, director of the FBI, said his agents explicitly have been told not to use racial profiling as they decide whether to conduct investigations of terror suspects. To others, however, it seemed clear that by focusing investigations and suspicion on Middle Easterners, the government was violating cherished American ideals of fairness and justice, and fanning flames of prejudice in the process. Still others believed that the use of racial profiling helped the government use its limited law enforcement resources more wisely and effectively. Whether they liked it or not, Americans found themselves walking a tightrope between granting civil liberties and protecting the nation as a whole.
Government Focus on Middle Eastern Males
Based in large measure on what it had learned about the hijackers, the government detained thousands of Middle
Eastern and Islamic males, as well as American-born Muslims and males of Middle Eastern ancestry, for questioning. Initially, one thousand Middle Eastern males were detained and four thousand subpoenas for others were issued as part of a nationwide search for terrorists. Attorney General John Ashcroft also requested so-called voluntary questioning of another five thousand Middle Eastern men in November 2001. By 2003, the government had obtained eighteen thousand subpoenas and search warrants in its attempt to prevent further terrorist attacks, and each was driven by the government's profile of the September 11 hijackers.
Even more people were detained when the United States went to war against Iraq in 2003. The FBI interviewed an estimated five thousand to eleven thousand Iraqis living in the United States in an attempt to discover if the Iraqi government had plotted retaliatory terrorist attacks against the United States. A number of Iraqis were arrested as the war began, with the government focusing on people thought to "pose a threat to the safety and security of the American people,"10 according to a spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security.
This focus on Iraqi Americans was controversial because it highlighted tensions about racial profiling. Some argued that it was unfair, and ironic, to target Iraqis who had come to the United States in large part to escape a totalitarian government. Others said it would be foolhardy not to, arguing that even a handful of terrorists intending to use an attack to become Iraqi heroes could jeopardize the safety of millions of Americans.
Most of the suspects detained by the government were held indefinitely and not formally charged with crimes, as officials attempted to untangle the guilty from the innocent. Eventually some of those being held were found innocent of terrorism but guilty of visa violations. Other Middle Eastern men held by the government were eventually deported after secret hearings, and Americans may never learn why the men were forced to leave the country. An antiterrorism law passed prior to the September 11 tragedy allows the government to use evidence that defendants are unaware of—and thus cannot challenge—to detain and deport immigrants suspected of terrorism. The law has since been used almost exclusively in the cases of Middle Eastern and Muslim immigrants, and by 2003, close to five hundred Middle Eastern Muslim men had been deported from the United States.
Although the government said that the manhunt, which focused on Middle Eastern males, uncovered a number of terrorists, others worried that the civil rights of a vast number of people of Middle Eastern ancestry had been violated. They believed that many of those held by the government were innocent of any wrongdoing, guilty only of being Middle Eastern males at a time when many Americans simplistically viewed them as potential terrorists.
Despite growing unease among many civil libertarians, the government uncovered a number of would-be terrorists and terrorist cells, that is, small groups of terrorists established to undertake missions against the United States. All were the result of the government's strategy of focusing on Middle Eastern and Muslim males in the United States. By early 2003, the government had brought 211 criminal charges against men of Middle Eastern ancestry on suspicion of terrorism and obtained 108 convictions or guilty pleas.
The government also had broken up four alleged terrorist rings in Buffalo, New York; Detroit, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon. The government's focus on Muslim men and those of Middle Eastern ancestry appeared to help the government to forestall future terrorist attacks. Although some of those arrested were eventually found innocent of terrorism, many Americans believed the government was justified in focusing its antiterrorism campaign on Middle Eastern men.
In the Buffalo case, U.S. law enforcement agencies arrested five U.S. citizens on charges of providing support to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The government said Faysal Galab, Sahim A. Alwan, Yahya A. Goba, Shafel Mosed, and Yasein Taher, American-born residents of Lackawanna, New York, had undergone weapons training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. In announcing the arrests of the men, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said the Justice Department would "aggressively pursue terrorists and those who aid terrorists, wherever they reside."11
The Detroit case featured four men who were charged with planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Among the items found in their possession was a videotape that authorities believed was a surveillance tape of Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, and the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Officials believed the men were planning an attack against the two popular tourist destinations. The government claimed that the men—Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hanna, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, and a fourth identified only as Abdella—also planned to conduct attacks against the U.S. air base in Incirlik, Turkey, and against a hospital in Jordan. The men allegedly belonged to an Algerian terrorist group that had financial ties to al-Qaeda.
The Portland and Seattle cases likewise involved men of Middle Eastern ancestry. In the Portland case, the government charged six people with belonging to a terrorist cell that
attempted to join al-Qaeda and Taliban forces fighting in Afghanistan against the United States. And finally, the government in the Seattle case charged that Ernest James Ujaama and several other U.S. residents had conspired to provide support to terrorists.
In further efforts to prevent another round of terrorist attacks the government instituted a special registration procedure for some of the 35 million people who enter the United States from other countries annually to work, study, or travel. Focusing almost exclusively on men entering the country from Middle Eastern nations, the government believed the registration program would help keep better track of foreigners within the United States and make it more difficult for those with ill intent to conduct terrorist attacks. The registration process included a face-to-face interview and fingerprinting, and those who registered were required to notify authorities of changes in address, employment, or school.
The registration requirement applied to males entering the country from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. The registration requirement also applied to predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Bangladesh, as well as to North Korea. By focusing on men from these nations, the government assumed that it would be able to more precisely identify any would-be terrorists.
At the same time, in 2003, a new computerized system called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) was launched to enable the federal government to better monitor foreign students. The idea behind the system is to reveal whether foreigners who receive student visas actually show up at school and remain there. Tracking foreign students is now a priority because a number of the September 11 hijackers had either overstayed or otherwise violated provisions of their student visas. Although all foreign national students are to be tracked by the system, students from Middle Eastern nations are of particular concern to government immigration officials. For example, the government is unlikely to devote many resources to finding a Swiss national who overstays a student visa but likely will devote considerable energy and time in tracking down a similar Egyptian national.
In announcing implementation of the system, a Justice Department press release said that SEVIS "demonstrates the commitment of the [government] to develop a system by which our country can invite international students and exchange visitors to enjoy an educational experience in the United States, but also protect our nation's security by maintaining accurate records on who is inside our borders."12 However, critics of the registration and tracking systems complain that the systems unfairly single out Middle Eastern and Muslim men for heightened scrutiny. They argue that each person should be judged on his own merits, not viewed with suspicion simply because he comes from the Middle East or is a practicing Muslim. They also argue that the systems are riddled with problems and are unlikely to significantly enhance national security.
On the other hand, proponents of the system argue that, because of the backgrounds of the September 11 terrorists, it only makes sense that the government spend more time scrutinizing those from the Middle East. Advocates also argue that the systems already have helped the government identify and monitor terrorists within the United States. In early 2003, Attorney General Ashcroft told Congress, "Hundreds and hundreds of suspected terrorists have been identified and tracked throughout the United States"13 as a result of the new registration programs.
Following the Money Trail
In addition to trying to ferret out terrorists before they strike against U.S. interests, the government has attempted to squash the flow of money to terrorist groups by targeting Muslim charities and businesses owned by people of Middle Eastern descent. On September 24, 2001, President Bush signed Executive Order 13224 to freeze the assets of terrorists or those who seek to finance them. By 2003, the executive order had been used to freeze $124 million in assets in more than six hundred accounts globally. The government also launched seventy investigations into terrorist financing, focusing on Muslim and Middle Eastern charities, businesses, and individuals. Those investigations led to twenty convictions and guilty pleas.
The government also expanded its efforts globally to prevent terrorists from both hatching plots against the United States and financing them in far reaches of the world. The effort focused almost exclusively on Middle Eastern Muslims, including the case of two Yemeni citizens who the FBI arrested on charges of conspiring to provide money to terrorists. The government charged that the Yemeni men provided bin Laden with $20 million in financing.
The focus on Islamic charities and institutions has launched another debate regarding the targeting of American Muslims in the war on terror. In some cases, relying on ethnicity and religion has allowed the government to seize funds that might have helped finance attacks against the United States. In others, however, it has led to the interrogation of innocent people simply because of their links to Islam or the Middle East. Rita Katz, a terrorism expert in Washington, D.C., says the government is being practical." A rich Saudi who wants to fund radical ideas or terrorists like Hamas and al Qaeda knows he can't send the money directly so he filters it through companies and charities, often in the U.S. or Europe."14 Others, however, like Nancy Luque, a Washington attorney who represents many of the charities that have been raided, calls the government's campaign, nicknamed Operation Green Quest, "a smearing."15 Americans like Luque fear the government has unfairly targeted Muslim institutions by casting a wide, blind net in its search for terrorists.
Backlash and Debate
Given the ethnicities of the September 11 hijackers and the government's subsequent focus on Middle Eastern Muslims in its declared war against terrorism, many Americans vented their frustrations with overt hostility to anyone of Middle Eastern descent. Some angry Americans resorted to hate crimes, graffiti, and plain prejudice in the weeks and months following the attacks. Such reactions even extended to members of Congress. Representative John Cooksey, a Louisiana Republican, said, "If I see someone [who] comes in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over."16
As ugly as Cooksey's sentiment was to Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans, these citizens faced the even uglier, more dangerous threat of physical harm. For example, Charles D. Franklin was charged on March 28, 2002, with driving his truck into the door of the Islamic Center Mosque in Tallahassee, Florida, in an apparent attempt at revenge for the terrorist attacks. In Arizona, a Sikh gas station owner was shot and killed by a man whose only rationale for the violence was the simple declaration, "I am an American."17
Some Americans advocated putting Middle Easterners into internment camps, as both a means of protecting Middle Easterners from harm and ensuring that they could not conduct future attacks against the United States. The idea for such camps invokes memories of World War II, when the government put 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps in one of the nation's most discredited acts. Other reactions to the 2001 attacks were more subdued but nevertheless raised concerns about racial profiling and prejudice. For example, a week after the attacks, the passengers and crew of a Northwest Airlines flight asked three men of Middle Eastern descent to get off an airplane prior to takeoff, fearful that the trio might be intent upon hijacking the plane.
The government itself appeared to send a mixed message. On the one hand, government law enforcement officials were thoroughly investigating and questioning Muslim and Middle Eastern men exclusively in its search for potential terrorists. At the same time, it was vigorously pursuing hate crimes perpetrated against Middle Easterners and Muslims. By early
2003, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had investigated nearly four hundred cases of alleged violence or threats against Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, and others. The government enthusiastically prosecuted a number of cases of violence or threatened violence, including a case in which Zachary J. Rolnik threatened to kill James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. On June 6, 2002, Rolnik pleaded guilty.
Officials Decry Profiling
To an extent, the government's sensitivities to the concerns of the nation's Middle Eastern community were well received. Zogby said many Arab Americans felt the government had taken the steps necessary to make them feel safe in a potentially hostile environment. Zogby told a journalist, "The Justice Department has been in touch with us every day. We've never seen a response like this. The community feels like the FBI is trying to protect them."18
Other people of Middle Eastern descent were partially calmed by the actions of other government officials, who flatly rejected proposals for policies that would subject Muslims and Middle Easterners to heightened scrutiny. For example, the Department of Transportation rejected an idea to impose tougher security restrictions on all Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent at the nation's airports. On April 20, 2002, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said such a policy would provide only a false sense of security. He noted, for example, that a seventy-year-old man and a twenty-five-year-old woman posing as father and daughter exploded a bomb on a flight from Baghdad to Thailand in 1987. Neither of the perpetrators were Middle Eastern. "Racial profiling …cannot provide us with the security that we need,"19 Mineta said.
Some members of Congress tried to use their positions to calm the passions of Americans angered by the terrorist attacks, urging them not to indiscriminately assume the worst about Middle Easterners. On October 1, 2001, for example, Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, wrote a letter to the heads of the nation's major airlines. In it, they asked that airlines not discriminate against Muslims and those of Middle Eastern ancestry. In their letter, the lawmakers said, "The American people are understandably feeling anxious about returning to our nation's skies, but we should not give the terrorists a victory by allowing the erosion of fundamental civil rights. All Americans have the same right to travel free of discrimination."20
"Americans Must Treat Each Other with Respect"
Some government officials consistently urged Americans not to lash out at those of Middle Eastern descent. In a September 26, 2001, meeting with Muslim leaders, President Bush attempted to make clear that the government was interested solely in apprehending terrorists and not in terrorizing
Muslims or Middle Easterners. In an earlier speech on September 17, 2001, Bush spoke at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., where he said:
America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution in our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms, and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.21
Bush's call for respect, however, seemed inconsistent to some Muslims and Middle Easterners, who believed the government's focus on antiterrorism unfairly singled them out for scrutiny. Yahya Basha, president of the American Muslim Council, tried to be sympathetic to the government's position when he said: "I understand that civil liberties may be off the agenda for now, until we all feel safe and secure; we don't want to stand in the way of national security. But we ask for a reasonable balance between protecting our country and civil liberties."22
Even as the debate over racial profiling swirled, the use of profiling appeared to be a potent tool for law enforcement officials. By focusing on Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent, the government was able to arrest, detain, deport, or track individuals identified as terrorists or potential terrorists. However, the government's approach appeared to many to call into question cherished American rights, such as the one that says people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The government found itself in the precarious position of attempting to balance the sometimes diametrically opposed goals of promoting civil liberties for all and protecting the nation from attacks by shadowy international terrorist organizations. As the nation's war against terrorism continued, so did the national debate over the propriety and existence of racial profiling.