In the wake of the foiled liquid explosives plot, the never-ending debate over racial profiling has been re-opened. In one corner are the civil liberty folks who see racial profiling as racism and one step down the slippery slope to internment camps. In the other corner are those who believe it foolish to treat blue-haired grandmothers the same way as bushy-bearded Muslims from Pakistan, because, after all, "most terrorist acts of the past several decades have been perpetrated by Muslim men between the ages of 17 and 40."
There's no need for me to get into the ethics and morality of racial profiling. It's been done, and will continue to be done, by people who care way more about this issue than do I. I do want to address, however, one of the main objections against instituting formal racial profiling in, for example, airport security screening. When asked on Fox News Sunday about racial profiling (no, I don't watch Fox News...I'm citing this from the first article linked above), Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff responded that profiling is a bad idea because terrorists will just start using people who don't fit the profile. After all, racial profiling probably wouldn't have warned anyone about Timothy McVeigh. If he had been in the employ of Osama bin Laden, rather than acting alone, he could have operated below the radar.
To that, I respond: let 'em. It would be a great coup for counter-terrorism efforts if al Qaeda was forced to begin recruiting suburban white folk. Why? Because right now the prospective al Qaeda recruit has a very narrow and specific profile. This makes it very difficult for western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to infiltrate these groups. Al Qaeda has, to date, enjoyed a very high degree of operational security, largely because it draws from a very small and insulated population base. How many CIA agents can pass as a disaffected Muslim from Kandahar? Islamic culture also makes it exceedingly hard to recruit such people as spies or double agents.
As I said, I'm not weighing in on the moral and ethical questions surrounding racial profiling, so I'm also not saying whether the benefits outweigh the costs. But the major policy-based objection is, in fact, a positive. The more al Qaeda has to recruit to avoid a profile, the easier it becomes to infiltrate the group. Continuing to keep al Qaeda on the run and further degenerating its operational capability should be the top priority of US counter-terrorism efforts right now, and from that angle, racial profiling makes a whole lot of sense.