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October 12, 2006

Tokyo and Heathrow: profiling, its problems, and why it's still the right approach

Posted by A S H Smyth

Leading South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale has complained that he was "racially profiled" Heathrow. But cultural sensitivities must not be allowed to stop the police and the security services from doing their job properly, argues A S H Smyth:

If you're looking for a fraudster you look in the City. If you're trying to crack down on petty drug-smuggling, you target young men who are returning from South America or South East Asia. If you're intent on stamping out Islamic terrorism, you focus on Muslims. It couldn't really be any clearer.
On 29th September 2006 the story "I was racially profiled at Heathrow" appeared in South Africa's Cape Times. The complainant was none other than Tokyo Sexwale, a very prominent black South African businessman and former presidential candidate.

The whole episode was a clumsy mistake, on two counts: Sexwale was the only non-white in a queue of five, and he's not a Muslim. Were the security personnel bored? Absent-minded? Tactless or just plain stupid? Maybe all of the above. Sexwale, unsurprisingly, was not impressed: and his immediate reaction was to put a call through to his mate Paul Boateng, currently our High Commissioner to South Africa.

He said to Boateng,

I know they have a job to do, but tell them to do it with caution and circumspection
- a fair suggestion with which few would disagree. Sexwale seems to recognise the current need for uncompromising security: what he was really objecting to (as many might, and with far less reason) was that in his case the "profile" was acted upon, and - he believes - wrongly.

The Cape Times article arose from comments Sexwale made in London, in a speech to the British South African Law Association (BSALA). Oddly, he went on to say that this was the first time that he had been profiled. That is plainly incorrect, as his audience must have been aware: in apartheid South Africa he was profiled all day every day - it was ingrained in the system of government which ultimately incarcerated him on Robben Island. Was he merely playing to his liberal crowd, a (too-)willing audience for anecdotes of racial tension, given their backgrounds or client-bases?

A former member of the ANC's upper echelons, Sexwale is not prone to hissy fits on the race issue. In fact, given his political background, he's really rather moderate: no radical Africanist left-winger, he had come to the UK to address the BSALA conference on the subject of South Africa's Black Economic Empowerment programme and how it should tread more carefully around white businessmen and investors. He does not believe in driving the former masters into the sea. He supports the principle which permits the investigation of the (former) Deputy President on corruption charges. He is, in many senses, a model New South African: democratic, capitalist, progressive, impartial.

All of which, of course, he might have hoped would save him from being taken for a terrorist. Add to this the fact that he was flying in not out, that he was arriving from New York not Islamabad, and that he is a qualified pilot (including take-offs and landings) of several decades' experience, and you have what seems like a tactical error on a grand scale.

But, in the context, on a scale of likelihood, it was strategically the right approach. Accepting that Islamic terrorism is currently the major security threat to Britain, then of the five men in the queue, Sexwale was the most likely to be a terrorist, and therefore the one who should have been searched.

His colour, alas, is an issue (would that it were not so): of the five men, he was statistically the most likely to be Muslim. He's from a country which has a recent history of Islamic terrorism - notably perpetrated by Cape Town's PAGAD (ironically, People Against Gangsterism And Drugs) - and some unsound connections with weapons trading. Without wishing to make light of it, he even has a criminal record. Of course, it is unclear how much of this was known to the security men who decided to search him… leading us back to the uncomfortable conclusion that the first of those aspects alone - his colour - was sufficient to mark him out as a threat.

Smartly, Sexwale asked the policeman in question if he was being searched in accordance with "racial profiling": the policeman refused to answer. To cut the policemen some slack, it was a loaded question; they weren't searching Sexwale because he was South African, that's for sure. But while it wasn't racially-driven, as such, it certainly was profiling: the real pity is that the policeman felt he couldn't say so. Profiling is not apartheid reborn (sadly, it's generally counter-factual to ask if they'd have admitted a profiling decision to a white target), but simply competent policing. Thankfully, our policemen don't work at random: they'd be irresponsible if they did. In a straightforward, human way they go for the target which looks most likely, given the parameters and circumstances in which they have to work.

Of course, there's no way of knowing that Sexwale was being profiled, per se. A random search, in the circumstances, would still have given him a 20% chance of being pulled out of the line - hardly exceptional odds. But let's not be naïve: if the airport security personnel had been concerned for the look of the thing, and had wanted to make it look different, they'd have selected someone else. But they didn't. It would not have taken much to pick out another man from the line as well; but then we are on a slippery slope to security checks by quota - every bit as stupid as random searches in this instance.

Like the majority of us who are not terrorists, Sexwale has a right to be annoyed by what happened. But only up to a point. He wasn't picked out and beaten: he was picked out and searched. He endured nothing more than a slight blow to his dignity, a small price to pay for raising the level of safety in airline travel.

And none of this is new, anyway. During the bad old days of IRA attacks, the man pulled out of the queue would have been any of the white guys with an Irish passport or accent. My parents, between them, have one of each: though I have neither, this was enough to ensure that my luggage (and clothing, even) was routinely searched during my childhood holidays. And in the days after the August Heathrow scares, when the profiling issue was first raised, I was delighted to see an Irishman comment (in The Times on-line debates) that he had endured precisely this treatment for decades. Not only did he not complain about it, he agreed it was for the greater good. Since he was not a terrorist, he remarked, he had nothing to hide.

By way of a corollary, consider what happens when a soccer World Cup takes place. The focus naturally shifts to hooliganism, and the security forces apply their resources accordingly. During the world cup it is white men between the ages of, say, 16 and 45, who are marked out as threats, whether on routes in and out of the host country or at the stadium gates. Why is there no outcry about the obviously racist, sexist and ageist nature of this profiling?

It is now time for (British) Muslims - and everyone else, for that matter - to acknowledge this fundamental truth. The security forces are trying to keep us all safe, and instead of getting shirty next time someone asks to search our luggage we should try being a little more appreciative. Whining about civil liberties to the very people who are trying to protect them is beneath contempt.

There is another, broader cultural aspect to this: why are we more scared of offending the Muslims than the Irish (or the football hooligans)? This is not the place to have this debate in full, but we need to ask what sort of cultural guilt-worm is gnawing at our guts that we were happy to do whatever it took to fix the Irish terrorist threat, but not to fix the Islamic one.

Ideally no-one would be "profiled", because everyone would be searched. That's what a nation's security apparatus would ideally achieve, and it's what they'd love to be able to achieve, were the resources and operational methods conceivable… but we are uncomfortable with that because it sounds more-than-somewhat Stalinist. But the same public who will object to such extreme measures would be just as quick to complain if the obvious suspect (these days, a man of Asian origin, probably under 45, wearing full Islamic garb) were not discomfited - in the name of political correctness and respect for civil liberties - and then proceeded to blow up a plane. And that, in no uncertain terms, is the inevitable end-point if policies of quota-checks, excessive cultural-sensitivity or a general fear of offending are allowed to misdirect valuable security resources.

The argument has already started doing the rounds that ALL Muslims should be inconvenienced until the majority - those who maintain that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance - start imposing some restraint on their own and vocally distancing themselves from extremists. Even if they don't do that, loyal British Muslims (that's British first, Muslim second) should realise that anti-terror measures - though inconvenient to many, and not just Muslims - protect them too: if a bomb goes off on a London bus, it's not only infidels who stand to be killed.

If, in the war on terror, the fight is going to be brought to us using asymmetrical tactics, then we are absolved of our part of the "rules of war" bargain: it is time we imposed asymmetrical demands in return, until the day Britain's Muslims march en masse with banners saying:

Stop abusing my religion and making me look guilty by association.
An unambiguous profiling hierarchy for each threat needs to be drawn up, publicised and imposed. In combating the current, Islamic threat that means beards and burkas at the top, jeans and blond hair at the bottom. (If the IRA were still the dominant threat, no-one would have any problem with it being the other way around.) Likewise, Bosnians have to be considered more of a threat than Serbs. Albanians more than Greeks. And, yes, non-whites more than whites.

Of course, it also means the police and other security forces must be in a position to tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim. Causing offence in general is not the problem, so much as getting it wrong in the specifics (as the case of Tokyo Sexwale makes so clear).

It is one of the tragedies of our age that we have such a yearning for iconoclasm, for overturning all received wisdom and denying everything we once assumed to be true simply because we once assumed it (rather than because it might have been seriously called into question). We have taken liberalism to mean that everything which came before - in our naughty colonial period - must now be wrong. This is a mistake which, if unchecked, will eventually cost us our liberal freedoms - the very same freedoms we are trying to ensure for British minorities.

But liberalism doesn't mean allowing minority groups or opinions to over-ride the general interest. It means the majority being mature enough to accept differences - be they cultural, racial, political or religious - while being willing to put a few noses out of joint in order to protect the broader freedoms of everyone. You need to have an extreme interpretation of civil liberties to believe that we all have the right to be blown up in order to respect the sensitivities of someone who might turn out to be a suicide bomber.

Our enemies have realised something we have not: that as comfortable, white Westerners we are collectively so wracked by guilt that we now leap at any opportunity to have our preconceptions overturned. The Lebanese are really the victims? It wasn't Hamas’'fault? Iraqis were better off under Saddam? Sharia isn't wrong - just culturally different? Islam isn't the main threat to Western national security? And so on.

It is, of course, right to question our preconceptions. But we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we refuse to accept and uphold that which is demonstrably true.

And those intent on doing us harm are not so stupid as their religious delusions would suggest. The Times recently [9th October 2006] devoted its front page to the story of a terrorist suspect in the UK (religion not specified) avoiding arrest for several days by wearing a burka (so maybe we can assume…). The article went on to remind readers that:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, often dressed in a burka to evade American forces hunting him.
A smart and rather obvious tactic, one might think: and one which should be seen by Muslims as a disgraceful betrayal of their religious codes.

What the paper ought to have recalled was the international outcry which arose from Muslims when John Simpson employed the same trick for the (totally legal) end of achieving good journalism in Afghanistan. I'm no Koranic expert, but I'm pretty sure that, even amongst adherents to the faith, cross-dressing is not encouraged.

The practical result of this latest stunt, of course, is that security forces can no longer be comfortable in the assumption that only Muslim men are a threat. More toes must now be trodden on, more people offended: the women - or those who seem to be dressed as such - must now especially be targeted. Muslim women rather than Muslim men must now be at the top of the profiling hierarchy. And I don't envy the poor souls who have to undertake this task, because they're never going to hear the end of it.

The biggest mistakes with such uncomfortable concepts often lie in the naming: "racial profiling" should obviously just be "profiling". In the search for Muslim extremists the security forces are not judging someone according to his race, but according to his beliefs. Indeed, if a white British male has a passport identifying him as Muhammad Yussuf, all the more reason to ask questions.

Profiling is entirely appropriate. It's exactly what police and security forces do when tackling any other type of crime, a responsible approach, identifying the main threat in whichever circumstances, and then targeting those most likely to be perpetrators.

If you're looking for a fraudster you look in the City. If you're trying to crack down on petty drug-smuggling, you target young men who are returning from South America or South East Asia. If you're intent on stamping out Islamic terrorism, you focus on Muslims. It couldn't really be any clearer.

Profiling is common sense, and in any case totally routine. Generally we overlook this. We can afford not to trouble our consciences when dealing with drugs, for example, because the smugglers don't all come from one distinct group (or, worse, a minority group). Islamic terrorists do. You simply can't find the mercenaries to undertake suicide work.

It has been variously suggested that if we crack down on those who bear all the physical and vestigial hall-marks of Islam then extremists will simply shave their beards or wear western clothes. I am not entirely convinced by this argument: if you take your religion this seriously, would you wish to appear before your lord and maker incorrectly attired? Besides, it doesn't negate all the elements in the equation. If the target is white and Chechen, or Bosnian, then that's reason enough to stop him. If the target (Richard Reid) is white and has a British name, but is dressed in Islamic garb, that's reason enough to stop him. If the target is patently Muslim, that is reason enough to stop him.

This is what the security forces are for, whether on the street, outside embassies, or in the airports. Their job is not to smoothe ruffled feathers, but to keep the majority safe from the minority, inevitably at the expense of someone's convenience. Being stopped in an airport isn't (and mustn't be allowed to become) a big deal. It is for the greater good and if you are a loyal citizen, in the truest sense of those words, then it shouldn't faze you in the slightest.

Oh, and no-one's suggesting that any of these propositions would cure the problem. Nothing will cure the problem. But playing the bigger man - and stalwartly upholding the rights of those who might be out to do us harm - is a mug's game. We shouldn't be conned into playing it by our enemies, or by those who don't have the grit to confront a nasty problem.

Ideally, we would subject everyone to the most rigorous security searches. But, even were the general public willing to tolerate the hassles and delays this would entail, it is financially and logistically impossible. So it is essential that our security forces devote their resources to those people who represent the most likely threat. It is a blatant and uncomfortable strategy, but also one which does not become any less difficult for being brushed under the carpet. And that, after all, is what governments are for: to undertake unpleasant tasks on behalf of the population they are supposed to represent and protect. It is essential that they do this, and essential that we acknowledge the necessity, however unhappy it may make us.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.


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I personally am against the widescale and indiscriminate use of full body scanning. I have a problem with it on personal grounds. Apart from that I believe there are massive privacy issues involved. I also beleive that we heighten the security argument in what can only be described as a scaremngering fashion and forget the basis of a democracy and justice system which states innocent until proven guilty.when I hear and read the stories about the incident that has brought about this debate the ordinary travelling public is asked to suffer such things because of the failure of the security system already in place.The wholesale use of this technology seems to be gulity till proven innocent.I also beleive there can be health issues which have not been fully looked into.Profiling, if done properly and with sharing of all intelligence, is not discriminatory. It targets those who show high indcators of being suspicious. That does not mean all Muslims and all foreigners etc.With the mandatory introduction of these scanners I will be travelling far less and only when I have to. I am sure there are many more like me.

Posted by: Bong at June 4, 2012 11:59 PM
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