Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Arizona Law and Profiling

The recently-passed Arizona law has stirred quite a controversy. As I understand it, profiling is at the heart of the argument against this law. This statute would give police the right to stop and ask for identification from anybody they suspect of being an illegal alien. Since most illegal aliens are Mexican in that part of the country, all Hispanic-looking people could be “profiled” and potentially stopped.

Let’s explore the topic of profiling. The problem with profiling is that somebody who fits a certain profile can be stopped, frisked, investigated, or asked for identification. Since the profile is usually based on looks, anybody who looks African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Muslim, etc., can be stopped. The fear is that profiling can easily degenerate into harassment, persecution, and unlawful searches and seizures. Even the most well-intentioned laws can be abused by less than well-intentioned police or other officials. People fear a Soviet or Nazi type of Orwellian hell as a worst case scenario if profiling is allowed. We all remember seeing those old movies in which a Gestapo or KGB agent checks a person’s papers, and then says those dreaded words: “Your papers are not in order.”

A few years ago, something made the rounds on the Internet that said something like this: “Since most terrorist acts against the West are carried out by Muslim men, doesn’t it make sense to single them out for further inspections at airports? Why are we making little old ladies take off their shoes when no little old ladies have carried out any terrorist acts?” There’s some truth to that statement. Law enforcement should work efficiently and not waste precious time and resources on “random” searches when profiling would allow officials to focus on higher probability groups. By the way, I was once stopped in a foreign airport for a random check. While I didn’t mind, it seemed like a waste of law enforcement time to check out an older person of northern European heritage who most likely didn’t fit any profile. I hope that if I did fit a profile, I would be understanding and patient when given special attention at airports, understanding that law enforcement officials have a job to do (as long as they were polite and didn’t treat me as a criminal).

So the question becomes, how to we balance the need for effective protection of our citizens from those who would do them harm with the rights of people belonging to certain groups not to be constantly stopped? As long as profiling isn’t abused and becomes harassment (and that’s a big “if”), then I believe people should accept the fact that if they fit a particular profile, they may be subject to receiving some extra attention. It’s a sad fact of life that we as a nation are at risk from Middle Eastern terrorists; that we have porous a border with Mexico and our country has large number of Latinos living here illegally; and that members of certain groups commit a disproportionate number of crimes. However, I also believe that looks alone should never trigger somebody being stopped, but actions and demeanor must also be major considerations. Otherwise, an innocent African-American or a citizen of Lebanese descent or a Hispanic citizen could be frequently stopped just because of his or her appearance, and that isn’t right. “DWB” (driving while black) should not be a reason to pull over an African-American who is driving within the speed limit.

While I’m not familiar with the specifics of the Arizona law, I must reluctantly conclude that for law enforcement to do its job effectively, some sort of profiling is appropriate. Freedom and security have a price. Over a million of our military have died in wars since 1776 to gain and secure our rights and freedoms. We, too, must make some sacrifices, mostly in terms of inconvenience and annoyance, to keep our country safe. I know some will strongly disagree with my position on this topic, especially those in target groups such as Latinos and Muslims. Nevertheless, we must realize our government has the duty to protect its citizens as best it can, within the law. We, as citizens, have the duty and responsibility to make sure government doesn’t cross the line from law enforcement to harassment and persecution. It’s a balancing act, and it isn’t easy, but I believe it must be done.

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