When good sense prevails over anger
Racial profiling though controversial is a useful tool especially in an emergency, says Vivek Gumaste.india Updated: May 01, 2007 04:05 IST
The Mumbai train blasts in July last year lead to an increased surveillance of Muslims by security personnel. A foiled terror plot in London produced the same after-effect leading the government there to contemplate a screening process at airports dubbed disparagingly by its antagonists as "a brand new offence-traveling whilst Asian". Now comes a story of a cricket journalist covering the World Cup being picked up by the police in Bridgetown because he was "brown and bearded" (Hindustan Times, April 24, 2007). Although one may oppose such a move as being morally reprehensive the practicality of such a process cannot be denied. I narrate my own experiences (that of a brown-skinned Hindu of Indian origin) with profiling in the aftermath of 9/11 and indicate how it helped me crystallise my own thoughts with regard to this controversial topic.
It was 5.30 in the evening; the usual time to head home from work. But that day was anything but usual. An eerie silence had engulfed the entire city and a pall of gloom mixed with anxiety had descended on this bustling gigantic metropolis that did not know the meaning of inactivity. Earlier that morning I had seen coils of smoke billowing up into the clear sky above from the World Trade Centre and had mistakenly assumed that it was the result of a trivial air-accident; small planes had been known to crash into these skyscrapers. In minutes, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre would come cascading down to mark probably the worst terrorist attack in history. But that evening we were faced with the immediate question: how do we get home? The interlacing network of bridges and tunnels that connected the different parts of this island city had been closed off and people advised to stay put wherever they may be.
My colleague, a Sikh made prominent by his bright red turban, fidgeted nervously beside me. He had already heard of Sikhs being targeted in the subway system and broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of undergoing his daily routine: the two-hour journey back home on local trains, which had suddenly become frightening that evening. Noticing his discomfiture, I offered to drop him in my car though I had to make a considerable detour.
Around 6.30 pm, the bridges opened up momentarily and we decided to take a chance. Still clad in our white work gowns that identified us as respectable members of society, we navigated our way through the snail-paced traffic towards the bridge. Standing sentinel at the entrance were a horde of stern looking policemen brandishing automatic rifles, assiduously surveying each car that rolled by and stopping those that merited a second look. It was inevitable that our car would be stopped and it was. We watched with trepidation as the officer fixated his eyes on our uniform and then meticulously examined our identification cards. Finally, after what seemed like an eon, he gestured for us to move on.
This was my first brush with profiling. In the days and years to follow, I would be the subject of more detailed scrutiny. But that evening, in the charged tense atmosphere of a city under siege, I was relieved to be "waived on" paying scant attention to any inner turmoil that I may have experienced.
A few months later, as I turned a corner at a traffic light in my predominantly white neighbourhood, a police car with flashing red lights pulled me over. I was clocking a measly10 mph having just dropped someone off at the bus stand and speed was certainly not my crime. I was accused of a most bizarre infraction: not providing right of way to a pedestrian (who was nowhere in sight).
On another occasion, occurring shortly after the pedestrian incident, a similarly frivolous charge prompted a police officer to detain me and examine my credentials. After examining my license and registration, and assuring himself that I was a harmless citizen who belonged to the area, the officer let me off without a formal citation in both instances.
That my brown colour had prompted the officer to investigate my antecedents was clear. These incidents were all the more noteworthy for in the preceding 15 years of my stay in that county, I had hardly been stopped for traffic misdemeanors.
The incident that really got my gall up involved my wife: a five feet nothing puny woman weighing no more than 100 pounds. She was specifically picked out of a line of waiting passengers at the airport for a more comprehensive security examination.
Each of these incidents evoked in me a medley of emotions with injustice leading the way: indignation, outrage and paranoia completed the catharsis. My characterisation solely as a brown-skinned individual devoid of further distinguishing attributes confounded and angered me.
My specific gripe: how could anyone mistake me, an upright citizen for a bomb-wielding terrorist? Did I look like one? My righteous indignation edged a notch higher when I invoked my inner identity: that of a Hindu. Here I was, a Hindu Indian, the complete antithesis of a terrorist being mistaken for one; the irony was insufferable.
When saner emotions prevailed, I reiterated the queries to myself and re-evaluated my concerns to find answers that were more plausible. Did I look like a terrorist? Yes, I did share one important trait with the terrorists: the colour of my skin. Wasn't the security personal justified in his cursory screening as a part of a larger mandate to prevent terrorism? Could I have any argument with that?
When I logically analysed the precept of my religious identity, the response was again more acceptable. How was the policeman to guess my religious leanings by a superficial scan of my face, I countered?
Profiling is a cost-effective method of accomplishing a task. Physicians routinely employ this strategy, targeting a high-risk subset rather than wasting precious assets on the entire population where the yield is likely to be minimal. A classic example is colon cancer screening: instead of performing a colonoscopy (a test used to detect pre-cancerous colonic lesions) on every single human being irrespective of age, this procedure is recommended only for people greater than 50 years of age in whom this disease is more prevalent. The net result is the efficient delivery of a higher level of medical care.
A similar analogy can be applied to the present scenario. However, profiling in the non-medical world is fraught with dangers and must be guided by caveats that protect the basic rights of an individual. Profiling cannot become synonymous with harassment.
More important, the aggrieved individual must have every opportunity (enforced by stringent laws) to prove his or her innocence firming up the age-old adage that it is better to allow a hundred guilty men to go free than to hang one innocent man.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai bomb blasts, the increased surveillance resulted in a great deal of consternation among the Indian Muslim community. Similarly, the newly proposed screening measures at UK airports raised the hackles of British Muslims. At the outset, this hue and cry is understandable. However, introspection and a perception of the larger picture must translate a knee-jerk response into a more sophisticated reaction that is conscious of security concerns and in tune with the prevailing environment.
Apart from the rationale that I have put forth, the fact that I straddle two communities, being a majority in one country and a minority in another must make my premise more credible and more convincing.
Now, whenever security personnel approach me, I willingly offer myself up for examination secure in the knowledge that this act, instead of demeaning me, is aimed at ensuring my safety and the safety of my fellow citizens.
Similarly when any brown-skinned individual or Muslim is confronted by a policeman, he should realise that the next man the policeman interrogates could be the one who aimed to plant a bomb in the same compartment of the same 6.30 pm local that carries him and hundreds like him back home from work, every day.
A terrorist has no religion and makes no distinction between his victims, Muslim, Hindu or Christian.
Vivek Gumaste is an academic based in the New York area and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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