Washington, 14 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some 32 million Americans say they've been the victims of unfair scrutiny because of their racial or religious backgrounds. And some 87 million Americans are at risk for such profiling.
Those are the findings of a recent report by the international rights group Amnesty International.
In the three years since a group of Middle Eastern hijackers attacked New York and Washington, airport security officers and police increasingly have singled out individuals with Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. The logic goes that these types of people are more likely to be attracted to Islamic extremism.
Amnesty International says such profiling is merely racism in another form. It tends to encourage and enforce racial separation and to humiliate its victims.
What's more, Amnesty says, from a security standpoint, profiling is a disaster. Security personnel are so busy looking for individuals that fit a certain stereotype, that they risk overlooking real terrorists.
Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed.
He said his organization -- a Muslim advocacy group -- understands the heightened need for security. But, he said, the scrutiny of Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims has gone too far.
"Amnesty certainly has a long and honorable point of view, but what did the hijackers of 11 September have in common? If they had polka dots, I would look for people who had polka dots. If they all had green eyes, I might take that into account." -- John Hulsman, a scholar and author who specializes in security issues at the Heritage Foundation
"We've had a number of incidents where Muslims are stopped or arrested [merely] for videotaping things," Hooper said. "In one case, we had a group of people who were asking directions to a fishing [pond] that happened to be in the area of a nuclear power plant, [who were stopped] just based on apparently their appearance."
Hooper said racial and ethnic profiling is counterproductive because it gives people a false sense of security. He said too much scrutiny on one group allows potential suspects in other groups to go undetected.
That view was partly refuted by John Hulsman, a scholar and author who specializes in security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington.
Hulsman told RFE/RL that in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, it would be wrong for officials not to pay special attention to people of Middle Eastern of South Asian appearance.
"Amnesty certainly has a long and honorable point of view, but what did the hijackers of 11 September have in common? If they had polka dots, I would look for people who had polka dots. If they all had green eyes, I might take that into account," Hulsman said.
Amnesty's report says 27 of the 50 U.S. states do not outlaw racial profiling, and 47 states do not outlaw religious profiling, in spite of an increased awareness of the practice over the past decade. The group supports bills being worked on in the U.S. Congress that would forbid profiling as a policy.
Even if the legislation is passed, it might or might not be obeyed. Hooper said there is a better and much simpler way to eliminate profiling.
"[Security officials] just need to get to know Muslims, get to know Arab-Americans and people of different backgrounds," Hooper said. "And we find that familiarity lessens contempt in these kinds of situations."