Over the weekend there was a series of bombings, and attempted bombings, in New Jersey and Manhattan (where I live). Authorities have identified and arrested one Ahmed Khan in connection with the attacks, which injured dozens of people in the New York area.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was quick to seize on this incident as further proof of the need to “profile” people for terrorism. Verbatim:
“We’re allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country, and make it unsafe for people. We don’t want to do any profiling. If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person … because if he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.”
Fox & Friends, 19 September 2016
Following media outcry at his remarks, Trump would (dubiously) deny that he was calling for racial profiling. However, the candidate has previously, and very explicitly, suggested the need this very tactic—for instance, in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:
“But look, we have — whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we’d better get smart. We are letting tens of thousands of people into our country. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
Hannity, 17 August 2016
The intuitive appeal of this strategy is obvious: it seems like a “certain kind of person” tends to commit these acts—let’s pay closer scrutiny to “those people” and we can probably nip a lot of attacks in the bud. In fact, the solution sounds so straightforward that many perhaps wonder why on Earth this practice is not already central to our law enforcement and counter-terrorism portfolio. I will briefly answer that question below:
1. Most of America’s Arab community are Christians, not Muslims—and conversely, most American Muslims (and indeed, most of the world’s Muslims) are non-Arab.
If asked to pick a racial or ethnic group most closely associated with Islam, most would answer “Arab.” There is a sense in which this choice is natural: Islam originated in the Middle East, when we talk about Islam it is generally in the context of Middle East invasions/occupations and their blowback. And indeed, a plurality (about 22%) of those arrested for jihadist terrorism in the U.S. have been people of Middle Eastern origin.
However, if police were to profile or otherwise discriminate against American Arabs, Christians would bear the brunt of these policies–just as Arab Christians (along with Sikhs, Hindus and other ethnic and religious groups) are often targets of hate-crimes intended for Muslims.
Moreover, considering that more than 78% of those arrested for Islamic terrorism thus far have not been Arabs, devoting greater time and resources to this majority-Christian ethnic block would distract law enforcement from others who pose a greater risk.
Here, the reader might think, “Most American Muslims aren’t Arabs? No problem. Authorities can just profile whichever group most American Muslims happen to be.” However, this also proves untenable: most American Muslims are African American (both “black” and people of more recent African lineage). However, African Americans amount to a full 12% of the U.S. population, and most of them (more than 90%) are non-Muslim. In fact, as with America’s Arab population, most African Americans are Christian. So as with Arab Americans, if law enforcement focused resources on this group to prevent Islamic terrorism, not only would these efforts be unwieldy (given the large African American population in the U.S.), but also, totally ineffective.
2. Most American terrorism, to include most Islamic terrorism in the United States, is carried out by people who were born and raised in America, not immigrants.
Donald Trump’s discussions about racial profiling often occur in the context of a broader conversation about immigration policies. There is a pervasive fear that immigrants are perhaps more disposed than others to commit acts of jihadist terrorism. Allow me to alleviate that concern:
First, most immigrants to the United States are Christians rather than Muslims or people of other faith traditions. Second, there are very few cases of immigrants carrying out terror attacks (and for the reference, the risk from illegal immigrants is absurdly miniscule). Instead, most terror attacks—to include most Islamic terror attacks–are carried out by people who were born and raised in the United States. As a result, diverting additional resources to screen immigrants could blind investigators to (more likely) indigenous threats.
3. It is both difficult and unwise to profile Muslims
Here, the reader may be tempted to think, “Alright, forget about the race business, or even national origin—let’s just profile people based on religion.” There are a number of logistical hurdles here. First, it is difficult to identify who is a Muslim (given that more-tractable proxies like race or ancestry will generate mostly false-positives); determining which Muslims harbor jihadist sympathies is even more complex.
One might think, “well, we know a lot of Muslims congregate in mosques. Let’s surveille those!” (this is another suggestion Donald Trump has previously made). There are two big problems with this:
First, a large share of the Westerners who gravitate towards groups like ISIS are new converts or the newly devout, rather than lifelong pious Muslims. They don’t regularly attend the mosque, and in fact, tend to view mainstream Muslims as being ideologically compromised (which is one reason why it doesn’t really matter if “moderates” speak out to condemn terrorism—although they regularly do). In other words, although mosques happen to be sites where Muslims regularly gather, they are the wrong place to look for those Muslims most likely to commit terror attacks.
Second, subjecting Muslim communities to greater surveillance or infiltration by law enforcement has a chilling effect on cooperation between Muslim populations and the authorities–while simultaneously affirming the Islamic State’s narrative that Muslims can never truly belong, be accepted, or worship freely in “the West” (indeed, provoking hostility towards Muslims abroad is an explicit goal of ISIS’ terror attacks). Both of these trends would render a successful jihadist attack more, not less, likely.
Third, focusing disproportionately on Islamic terrorism actually makes it easier for non-Islamic terrorists to succeed. Indeed, prior to the Pulse nightclub massacre, most deaths from terrorism in the United States since 9/11 were justified by appeals to non-Islamic (at times, anti-Islamic) right-wing ideology. However, it would be a mistake to assert that law enforcement should therefore profile people based on their political affiliation—such a strategy would fail for basically the same reasons as attempts to target people based on their religion or ethnicity.
Back to the Future
Many of Trump’s proposals, to include registering Muslims, profiling Muslims, and infiltrating Muslim communities were attempted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The reason most of those policies were abandoned had little to do with “P.C. culture,” and a lot more to do with the high (strategic and financial) costs of the programs, paired with their lack of measurable benefit. That is, law enforcement has come to discourage profiling for the same reason intelligence services have disavowed torture: it simply doesn’t work–neither in theory, nor in practice. Donald Trump has been ill-served by his rogue’s gallery of national security and law enforcement supporters who take a contrarian stance on these issues—as would be the American people if they were allowed to implement their policies.
However, the U.S. intelligentsia is as much to blame for this outcome as Trump (perhaps more so), given that so many who could provide him sound advice have instead attempted to distance themselves from the candidate or even worked toward his demise—as though Clinton and her advisors are not equally committed to doubling down on failed national-security policies.
This is highly irresponsible on the part of the beltway Republicans, and they may come to regret it. Because despite their antipathy—indeed, perhaps precisely due to “establishment” resistance—Donald Trump has a solid chance of emerging victorious in November, and all of these more “reasonable” experts who didn’t want to sully their hands or reputations will find themselves on the margins, watching helplessly as America once again has to learn the hard way that tactics like profiling and torture provide overwhelmingly bad intelligence while exacerbating terrorism (In the case of torture, this is a lesson we have ostensibly “learned” several times before to no avail).
Profiling is ineffective. Torture is ineffective. But sanctimonious armchair criticism is also ineffective. If the Republican establishment really wants to prevent a train wreck, they need to get onboard the Trump Train and help steer.