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Capitol Hill Takes on Racial Profiling Issue

By Marilee Miller
Medill News Service

WASHINGTON -- Kenan Basha thought nothing of it when his family was pulled aside during a routine security check at Detroit National Airport in the summer of 1997.

They were leaving for Syria to visit relatives when they were asked to step aside by airport security personnel.

"They had us stand in the corner and made us wait for security to go through all of our bags," Basha said. "They opened up my summer reading books and started flipping through the pages. They even opened up my then six-year-old sister's purse.

"At the time, they claimed it was a random search, but then I noticed that everyone that was being pulled was Muslim or Arab."

This incident came in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. It gave Basha, now a student at the University of Michigan and vice president of the Muslim Students Association, special perspective on the continuing debate, heightened this week, over the balance between civil rights and national security in light of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

"It was extremely demeaning to be surrounded by six or seven security guards, scrutinizing my stuff in the most meticulous manner," he said. "After this check, we had to get on an airplane with all these people who passed us by at security and had watched us be searched. Everyone stares at you wondering why you are allowed on the plane with them. You feel like a caged animal."

On Monday, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., lead sponsors of identical legislation on racial profiling pending in the House and Senate, sent a letter to executives of major airlines asking them to assure that passenger rights are protected.

"The American people are understandably feeling anxious about returning to our nation's skies, but we should not give terrorists a victory by allowing the erosion of fundamental civil rights," the letter read.

Several airlines including Delta, US Airways and Northwest have ordered passengers of Middle Eastern origin off airplanes after others expressed uneasiness.

Senators and experts testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday disagreed over this very issue — the relationship between civil rights and security — and the constitutionality of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism security proposals.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., wrote "the Bush administration has asked us to take some reasonable, measured steps to make terrorism a top priority in our criminal laws and to update our laws for modern technology".

"None of these proposals are unconstitutional, and none of them should cause innocent Americans any concern."

Administration proposals would provide for detention of aliens for national security reasons, information sharing between law enforcement agencies and expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set conditions for federal surveillance and searches. The administration also wants to add disclosure of covert agent names to the list of federal terrorism crimes.

Robert A. Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, research organization that promotes a libertarian agenda, explained the justification for racial profiling in light of the terrorist attacks.

He said that in establishing policy, government must demonstrate that the discriminatory means it intends to use for security are the least restrictive of the available options. Additionally, government must show a compelling interest for using such discriminatory practices.

"Surely, protection against the kind of terror that we experienced on Sept. 11 would qualify as compelling," he said.

According to Levy, there is a significant distinction between everyday law enforcement profiling and profiling in respect to the terrorist attacks.

"The kind of profiling that's occurred recently is much more justified," he said. "The potential harms that you're seeking to prevent are immense in their capacity. We're talking about biological and chemical weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. If to prevent the acts, we have to invade the rights of a few dozen people, I think you can make a case for that."

Feingold, however, disagrees. "Preserving our freedom is the reason we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism," Feingold said. "We will lose that war without a shot being fired if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people in the belief that by doing so we will stop the terrorists."

The subcommittee has scheduled more hearings later in the month on these issues.

Medill
 




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