BY TUNKU VARADARAJAN
After the terrorist bombings in London, and the revelations that many of the perpetrators were of Pakistani origin, I find that I am–for the first time in my life–part of a “group” that is under broad but emphatic visual suspicion. In other words, I fit a visual “profile,” and the fit is most disconcerting.
The fact that I am neither Muslim nor Pakistani is irrelevant: Who except the most absurdly expert physiognomist or anthropologist could tell from my face that I am not an Ali, or a Mohammed, or a Hassan; that my ancestors are all from deepest South India; and that my line has worshipped not Allah but Lord Shiva–mightiest deity of the Hindu pantheon–for 2,000 years? I will be mistaken for Muslim at some point–just as earlier this week in Manhattan five young men were pulled off a sightseeing bus and handcuffed by police on suspicion that they might have been Islamist terrorists. Their names, published in the papers, revealed that they were in fact all Sikhs and Hindus–something few could have established by simply looking at them. (The Sikhs here were short-haired and unturbanned.)
What we had in this incident–what we must get used to–is a not irrational sequence: alarm, provoked by a belief that someone in the vicinity could do everyone around him great harm, followed instinctively by actions in which the niceties of social intercourse, the judgmental taboos that have been drilled into us, are set aside in the interest of self-preservation.
Terrorism has had many effects on society, and the foremost among them are philosophical, or spiritual. We are now called upon to adjust the way we live and think, and to do so we must also adjust the bandwidth of our tolerance. By this I don’t mean that we must be less tolerant of others but that some among us must learn to tolerate–or put up with–hardships, inconvenience or a new set of presumptions, given the all-consuming nature of the threat we face, in which “the profiled” and “the profilers” alike are targets.
In evaluating the moral fitness of “profiling,” I should stress that we are identifying people for scrutiny, not punishment. Recall the fate of Cinna the poet, in the Bard’s “Julius Caesar,” who is killed by a mob that believes him, because of his name, to be Cinna the conspirator. When scrutiny becomes stigma, and stigma leads to victimization, a clear jump to evil has occurred. This has not happened in America, and must not.
But what of “profiling” as a forensic tool? Here, one must be satisfied either that profiling ought to be done or at least–per Bentham–that it isn’t something that “ought not to be done.” I am satisfied on the second count. The practice cannot be rejected with the old moral clarity. The profiling process is not precisely racial but broadly physical according to “Muslim type.” (Does that make it worse or better?) The process under way now does not constitute racial profiling in the classic sense–Muslims, after all, come in flavors other than Pakistani, including white Chechens and black Somalis.
But there is no getting around profiling, surely, because of the life-or-death, instant decisions involved. So we have to ask one section of society to bear up under heightened scrutiny, asking them also to work extra hard–visibly so–to expunge the threat. Meanwhile, and just as important, we must ask the rest of society not to stigmatize those who conform to the broad physical category while also not allowing feelings of racial and moral guilt to slow our society’s response to danger.
If I’m sounding overly nuanced on a subject that should, in the view of some, have bright moral outlines, it’s because the devil resides in this predicament. We are all facing the quandary of the policeman chasing a suspect who might be armed. Does he shoot or hesitate, shout a warning and possibly get shot? In that situation, society asks that he take the risk of self-harm. In our current situation, large swaths of society might be eradicated. Suddenly we all feel like the cop, and some of us like the suspect.
I am just as concerned about catching terrorists (who may look like me) as anyone else who looks different. I can ask that the searches and scrutiny be done in a professional manner, with no insults and nothing that offends my dignity. I, too, see the absurdity of subjecting Chinese grandmothers to the same level of scrutiny as people from the Indian subcontinent at the airport check-in counter.
Do I like being profiled? Of course not. But my displeasure is yet another manifestation of the extraordinary power of terrorism. I am not being profiled because of racism but rather because Islamist fanatics have declared war on my society. They are the dark power that leads me to an experience in which my individuality is corroded. This is tragic; but it strengthens my resolve to support the war that seeks to destroy terrorism.
Mr. Varadarajan is features editor of The Wall Street Journal.