The recent events in the United Kingdom have brought, yet again, the debate about profiling to the fore. Advocates argue that because much of the terrorism witnessed in the world since September 11 has originated with Muslims, it makes sense to focus attention on Muslims that might be boarding planes or public transport. The argument is that, given finite resources, it is better to expend those resources checking people who belong to one of the several ethnic and religious groups with a known association with terrorism or politically-motivated violence. On the other hand, the argument opposing profiles can be distilled down to these points: if you target Arab males, terrorists will recognise your ‘blind spot’ and start using non-Arab women or teenagers as suicide bombers; and it is an undesirable infringement of our civil liberties to subject specific ethnic or religious groups to special attention in this manner.
In any case, in order for it to be effective, the government would need to know the religion (and political persuasion) of a person before they board a plane. This may be easy in the case of women in hijab but not in the case of Muslim men who are often indistinguishable from non-Muslim men. Therefore, such schemes would work most effectively if people’s religion was recorded on their passport. This raises a number of further issues: what would compel a person to record their religion truthfully given religion is ultimately a personal matter and simply the adoption of certain ideas and rites; and can we stomach a society where each of us is walking around with a document marked ‘Jew’ or ‘Muslim’. I think not.
Now before I continue, I am not suggesting that profiling is effective or that it wouldn’t open up a new and potentially more dangerous security blind spot. Personally, I’m opposed to it fo reasons of pragmatism, effectiveness and, of course, fairness. However, if a government is going to subject Muslims to increased scrutiny simply because we fit some vague ‘profile’, then they should at least pay us for it. For this reason, one can conceive of a system that would possibly ‘work’: compensate people that are searched or subjected to increased scrutiny with money. For example, the government could provide everyone that was quizzed for 15 minutes with a cheque for $100 or an amount dependent upon the time taken to conduct the interview. Firstly, this would mean that people subjected to such scrutiny would, at least theoretically, feel less resentful and upset by the experience. Secondly, it means that the ‘cost’ of this additional security is being shared by all taxpayers and not just by Muslims and those who look like Muslims.
There are, of course, some details that would need to be resolved. The setting of the compensation is difficult because how does one calculate a rate of payment that would ensure that the majority of profiled travellers are not left feeling disgruntled by the process? This could be achieved by offering a focus group of travellers — across profiled and non-profiled groups — the opportunity to denote the minimum amount they would require in order to be happy being searched or interviewed. There are possibly other methods to discover an appropriate price, but this seems the simplest.
I would be interested in learning what our readers — particularly the Muslims — think. Would you be happy being profiled if you knew that you were going to be paid an acceptable amount of money for the trouble? Or do you think that this would be an incentive for non-Muslim travellers to behave suspiciously in order to earn a quick $100? Or, would this see a sudden rush of Muslim air travellers resulting in the system being overloaded? Or would no amount of money properly compensate for the humiliation or loss of dignity associated with the process?
(Note: In case it isn’t clear, I’m not actually advocating profiling nor do I think it’s a good thing. I’m merely interested in understanding whether a balance can be found between the demands of some of these “security experts” and our own desire not to be treated differently to everyone else in public.)