What do a Norwegian farmer, the Nigerian son of a wealthy banker, a Gulf War veteran awarded a Bronze Star, and a Harvard graduate have in common?
If you answered that these individuals have all been terrorists, you win.
The recent events in Norway must remind us that profiling is inherently inexact and colored by our collective expectations. Pundits and experts were quick to speculate that the Oslo attack was the work of Islamist extremists, because that is where the national and international security community’s attention has been focused. But like most cases of tunnel vision, this preoccupation is dangerous and counter-productive. Of the terrorists listed above, only one was a Muslim and none were Arab.
Profiling is, by its nature, dubious. The picture of a criminal or terrorist, painted in demographic generalities (poor, uneducated, Arab and Muslim, for instance) is really only useful if it is both predictive, rather than reactive, and exact. If one element wrong, such as race, class or religion, then a real terrorist could slip through a system looking for only a specific type.
Profiling is based on assumptions and statistical probabilities, which by their natures relate to individuals only imprecisely. Once race or religion is brought into the mix, the risk of bias grows overwhelming. Profiling also relies on a policing force which believes the profile.
The Unabomber provides a good example here. The initial psychological profile described an academic, with a degree in hard sciences, with ties to the Bay Area. That’s a pretty apt description of Ted Kaczynski. But the FBI chose to look for a working class airplane mechanic instead. This raises the question whether law enforcement agencies would pursue a suspected terrorist who did not already match their preconceived notions.
The racial bias towards terrorism can be seen in the reticence of mainstream media outlets to refer to Anders Breivik—or Jared Lee Loughner—a pair of white men who committed prolific political violence, as terrorists. Mass murderers or gunmen, yes, but terrorists, no. In retrospect, terrorist threats are as diverse as people themselves. It may seem that the West is generally attacked by Middle Eastern men with fervent religious beliefs. The years 2000 to 2010 were rife with examples. But a wider view points to threats from all points on the political, religious and racial spectrum. The 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2010/spring/rage-on-the-right) highlighted the striking size and diversity of violent right-wing movements in the United States.
In fact, the largest stash of weapons seized from a terrorist group on US soil in the last 10 years was from the Hutaree, a right-wing Christian militia in Michigan intent on assassinating police and other officials. Even so, the initial reaction to the Norway attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing shows that many assume Islamic terrorism even when little or no evidence exists to support that assumption.
Left wing terrorism is also an element to be considered, particularly in the context of environmental and animal rights activists. Although these groups have generally caused only damage to property, their longstanding classification as terrorists reveals that no political ideology is safe from extremism and misuse. The case of the underwear bomber presents a concrete illustration of how racial and religious profiling undermines security. His name was on a list. His father called authorities to report his suspicions. He went to Yemen for training. But his name was one of thousands of names on one no-fly list or another, which made noticing him like finding a needle in a haystack. There was plenty of reason to be suspicious of Umar Abdul Mutallab but it was impossible to isolate him among a sea of names, placed on a registry because of our country’s inexorable interest in collecting data on more innocuous (and Constitutionally protected) activities like attending mosque regularly or belonging to pro-Palestinian groups. He also defies the conventional profile of a Muslim terrorist. He is from sub-Saharan Africa, ethnically African, well educated in the West and did not suffer from poverty or exploitation. If you are a screener looking for an Arab, you don’t see him. But profiling of the Muslim community simply does not see a hard, clear line between the needles to pay attention to and the whole haystack. Terrorism is scary. And Americans want to believe it can be prevented and that terrorists can be understood. It’s human nature to want to package ideas into identifiable boxes with labels. But profiling according to race or religion constructs a bogeyman of “the other” rather than dealing with real threats. And by choosing this false vision of security, we ultimately weaken ourselves in the face of threats from all sources.