After Omar Mateen’s attack in Orlando last week, Donald Trump revived a controversial proposal: racial profiling to prevent terrorism.
“I hate the concept of profiling, but we have to use common sense,” Mr. Trump said Sunday in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation. “We’re not using common sense.”
The debate over racial profiling has long centered on striking a balance between national security and civil liberties. But sometimes lost in that debate is evidence that the practice is ineffective, or even counterproductive.
To proponents like Mr. Trump who cite Israel as a model, the value of clearly identifying threats – even if that forces officials to focus on a single race or ethnicity – is the beginning of common-sense security. But the limited data that exist suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to terrorism actually misses many threats and can overload agencies with false alarms.
“For example, if fire alarms were going off constantly, fire departments couldn’t respond to real fires as they should. That’s why it’s a crime to ring an alarm without a fire,” says Michael German, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and current fellow with New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. “The idea that there is one particular race or religion that drives this political violence is not supported by the evidence.”
Between 2001 and 2016, roughly two-thirds of 508 extremists who engaged in violent attacks – such as mass shootings – identified with jihadist terrorism, according to extensive data compiled by the New America Foundation.
Only eight were illegal residents, compared to 150 United States-born citizens. Sixty-seven identified as Arab or Middle Eastern, but significant numbers come from other backgrounds, including 49 Somalis, 48, South Asians, 35 Caucasians, and 35 African-Americans. There were also Hispanics, Albanians, a Uighur, and others.
Of the 10 violent jihadist attacks on US soil since 9/11, such as the Fort Hood shooting, none of them have been committed by a foreign terrorist organization.
William Press, a statistician at the University of Texas, found that profiling was not mathematically justified. Even under a hypothetical all-knowing government, he says, the profiling system would sample innocent individuals who happen to have a high-risk value while ignoring “malfeasors” who learn to adjust their behavior.
“It is not only wrong and unconstitutional, but it is also at odds with reality,” says Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The science regarding who carries out terrorist attacks has yielded no distinct model to predict who will carry out terrorist attacks.”