Since Sept. 11, many Arab-Americans have stated their belief that racial profiling has taken center stage in the war against terrorism.
Groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab-American Institute and the Council on American Islamic Relations have charged that immigration and law officials have been detaining Arab immigrants more readily, often secretly and without solid evidence. Information released so far by the Justice Department confirms that most of the detainees in the war are from Middle Eastern or Central Asian countries.
Racial profiling is an extremely contentious issue. For many people in our country, the idea of singling out individuals because of their race stirs up painful memories of injustices from the past. And, whether or not the allegations of racial profiling prove true, every accusation raises serious moral questions for anyone who takes the Gospel seriously. Among these: Is profiling in itself unjust and morally unacceptable? May the state resort to racial profiling in times of national crisis such as war?
To answer these questions, we need to clarify what may be considered profiling.
The concept of profiling entails collecting information regarding a person's race—or sex, age, nationality, appearance, culture, education or some other distinguishing personal characteristic—to gauge the likelihood of a certain type of behavior.
Therefore, the term racial profiling is somewhat misleading because it suggests that race is the only factor taken into account.
What the term should indicate is that race is one factor among many when compiling information concerning a subset of the population. Profiling, properly understood, considers many aspects of a particular group of people.
Now we can answer the first question: Is profiling in itself unjust and morally unacceptable?
The action of gathering data on a given group of people is, in itself, neither good nor bad. The use of this information could be used, however, with a good or bad intentions. For example, a person of a certain age, race, habits and medical history may be much more susceptible to a given illness than others. Profiling in this situation could help doctors watch for early symptoms of a particular disease. This is a moral good.
On the other hand, if information on a given group of people is used by an organization with the intention to harass or abuse those people, this is unjust and morally unacceptable. Therefore, from a moral viewpoint, profiling is not bad in itself. It's more accurate to say that it can be bad, depending on how it is used.
Is it unjust for our government to‘profile’ Arab Muslims who live in the United States?
Now comes the most controversial question: Is it unjust and, therefore, morally unacceptable for our government, as a strategic part of the war on terrorism, to profile Arab Muslims who live in the United States (and those who want to come here)? To answer this question, we need to consider the action of the government, the intention of the government and the circumstances surrounding the action of the government.
Many Arab Muslims contend that the govern-ment's action to focus on their community is unjust and upholds the erroneous principle of guilt by association.
The government's decision to pay special attention to Arab Muslims seems to stem from the reasoned supposition that Arab Muslims educated in certain places with particular ideas are far more likely to engage in terrorist activities than other individuals.
This action, in itself, does not appear to be unjust or unreasonable.
Why? Because the government's intention is not to harass or humiliate Arab Muslims—but to protect its citizens from a future terrorist attack. This intention is consistent with any state's right to protect the common good of its own people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church appears to support this principle:
“The common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense” (No. 1909).
If some Arab Muslims have had to undergo serious inconveniences, such as questioning or temporal detention, it would be due to the gravity of the circumstances. Consequently, any negative experience suffered by Arab Muslims is not deliberately willed, but permitted as an indirect effect.
Given these considerations, the government's recent actions in the name of homeland security do not seem unjust or immoral. Nonetheless, particular cases and practical aspects of profiling will always need to be closely considered to avoid any possible abuses.
Profiling is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good or evil. It should be held in hands that are virtuous.
Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at
Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.