By JOHN B. QUIGLEY
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Difficult times produce extreme ideas. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were incarcerated wholesale out of fear they would help Japan against the United States.
Now we are hearing proposals to use ethnic profiling at airports, and perhaps on other forms of mass transit, to stop terrorism. To date, fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security is resisting.
Admittedly, the criteria the feds use to screen passengers are not the most rational. One reason for extra checking, at least in the recent past, has been that a passenger's ticket is a one-way ticket.
Apparently the thinking was that a hijacker would not buy a return ticket. Of course, if such a policy were known, a rational terrorist would buy a round-trip ticket. In fairness to the authorities, grasping for reasons to subject a passenger to special scrutiny reflects the difficulty of establishing criteria.
Ultimately, there are few criteria -- whether the race or ethnicity of the passenger or any other factor -- which correlate well with terrorism. Profiling would be difficult to implement. There are too many persons in whatever racial or ethnic category one might use to make checking sensible. And the authorities would have to define the category.
Would it be persons who appear, by facial characteristics, to be Middle Eastern? Or persons whose names sound Middle Eastern?
And what is Middle Eastern? Does it include the Indian sub-continent? The London underground bombers were of Pakistani origin, not from Arabic countries. Would persons from countries that are predominantly Muslim be included? That would encompass Indonesia and much of southeast Asia.
Apart from ineffectiveness, profiling would carry collateral damage that might in fact impair anti-terrorism efforts.
The Department of Homeland Security, like the authorities in the U.K., is keen to gain the cooperation of ethnic communities to help stop terrorists. If one alienates those communities by marking them for negative treatment, that cooperation is jeopardized.
And beyond the terrorism realm, if ethnic communities are branded as dangerous, the chance for good race relations plummets.
Screening measures are in any event half-measures. Whatever system of selection for scrutiny is used at airports or elsewhere, huge financial cost is involved. Proving the effectiveness of the screening is well nigh impossible.
The screening for weaponry has been shown to be less than perfect. Even if the screening is done well, and even if terrorism declines, the reasons for a decline could lie elsewhere.
We are mired in debating how more effectively to screen at airports because the Bush administration views terrorism as a phenomenon we can combat in no way other than physical force and protective measures.
The Bush administration insists that the terrorism we experience is not a function of our policies but of a philosophy that has many Middle Easterners hating us and our values. Recently the U.K. government has made the same analysis, saying that the London underground bombings are not related to Britain's military role in Iraq.
It is on this issue that we need a national dialogue. If President Bush is right, and the terrorists simply hate political freedom and free elections, then there may be little else to decide than which people to scrutinize at airports or rail stations. If he is wrong, and terrorism is fueled by our policy choices, then we need to analyze our policy, and whether it can be changed.
My guess is that we would say that President Bush is wrong, and that policy change can reduce terrorism more effectively than figuring out which people to screen at airports. But we have not yet begun this critical debate.
X John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.