This House would use racial profiling as part of airport security checks

The methods that law enforcement agents traditionally use to identify dangerous individuals in public locations involve observation of behaviour and the use of knowledge gained in previous investigations. Officials may even institute random checks in particularly high risk situations. Customs officers will try to identify drug smugglers passing through an airport by using police information about delivery dates and bank transactions to determine when they should increase checks on luggage; security staff will be instructed to be alert for anyone who appears nervous, agitated or evasive.

The ability to observe and interpret behavioural indicators, no matter how subtle, has been at the core of police work for decades[i]. This skill guides the training of new police officers and is prized by security professionals. Financial transactions and travel patterns- the things that we buy and the places that we visit- can also constitute a form of behaviour. The computer systems used to monitor international travel and immigration can already be programmed to monitor travellers with criminal records, or who are en route to poorly governed or insecure states. Intelligent observation and interpretation of information acquired by borders authorities can also be useful in detecting criminal activity or intent. Even passports contain more information- both human-readable and digital- than ever before.

Profiling is a policing technique that attempts to predict whether or not an individual will behave in a criminal fashion based on his personal characteristics rather than his behaviour[ii]. Profiling need not be targeted against a particular person; it can be used to identify members of a class or group[iii]. One of the advantages of profiling is that it allows police to direct their attention and observational skills on to individuals thought to pose the greatest risk of breaking the law. The most sophisticated forms of profiling study an individual’s background and psychological characteristics. Simpler profiles focus on gender, age and race. For example, decades of behavioural studies indicate that women are less likely to commit impulsive, violent offences than men. A profile used to identify individuals who may attempt to start riots at sports events would therefore exclude women. Profiles guided by an individual’s race have proved controversial, as they may be based on an implicit assumption that racial background can determine behaviour[iv], suggesting a connection between an individual’s skin colour and her willingness to obey laws and social norms[v].

Investigations carried out in the wake of the 9/11 attacks confirmed that all of the hijackers were of Middle Eastern origin and appearance. Some had entered the US on student visas; others had been resident for extended periods of time. Once links between these individuals and al Qaeda were confirmed, it was quickly assumed that the majority of the organisation’s members were of a similar ethnic and racial background. A number of investigators reasoned that people from majority Muslim states and racial groups were more likely than other individuals to be members of al Qaeda[vi], due to the group’s integration of radical Islam and violent, insurrectionary politics. As the 9/11 hijackers had exploited flaws in airport security, investigators advocated increased security at airports and intensive and intrusive screening of passengers who were Middle Eastern or “Muslim” in appearance.

Although the law governing security screening at US airports changed little, screening staff employed by the TSA were given instructions based on profiling theory[vii] that led to large numbers of individuals from Arab and Muslim states being subjected to lengthier and more intimate searches[viii].

Supporters of profiling point out that seasoned security officers’ ability to identify dangerous individuals by their behaviour is all but useless within a busy airport. It is not possible for a handful of officers to focus sufficient attention on each of the millions of passengers that pass through Kennedy, LAX or Heathrow, nor is it possible to hire and train enough staff to close this gap. By eliminating the types of passenger thought least likely to be terrorists, the skills and insight of experienced officers can be employed more effectively.

It has also been pointed out that selecting individuals for intrusive searches on the basis of their skin colour is a policy that can be justified by the potential loss of life that would be caused by another terrorist hijacking. An opportunity to prevent thousands of deaths and extensive property destruction balances out the subtle distortions in attitude and the offence that racial profiling might cause. Moreover, the journalist Stuart Taylor[ix] has noted that forced removals of Middle Eastern individuals from aircraft following the 9/11 hijackings were not caused by entrenched racist attitudes, but by a lack of confidence in the security screening processes that airports were using. By reassuring flyers that their fellow passengers have been subjected to searches proportionate to the threat that someone sharing their characteristics might pose, there is less chance of airlines preventing individuals from flying on the basis of poorly informed and racist policies.

Contrary to the arguments used by profiling’s supporters, civil rights and anti-racism campaigners claim that the use of profiles causes screeners and investigators to pay more attention to individuals’ racial and ethnic characteristics than their behaviour. They point out that the distinction between physical appearance and behaviour can easily be blurred. Openly designating a particular group or class of individuals as being potentially dangerous may lead otherwise competent security staff to identify suspicious and threatening forms of behaviour more frequently than they would in other contexts. Selection biases of this type will also cause officers to overlook disturbing behaviour engaged in by individuals who do not fit the profile that they have been trained to recognise.

Finally, those opposed to profiling note that building close and open relationships with the communities that terrorists might belong to is at least as important as preventing them from reaching their targets or boarding aircraft. Terrorists pose a threat to their families and cultures, as well as their targets. Terrorist actions, based on distorted interpretations of a particular religion, may expose mainstream members of that religion to reprisals and prejudice. Indeed, terrorists may go out of their way to target members of their own community whom they perceive as holding heretical or unacceptably lax beliefs and views. Profile-led searches, no matter how nuanced, will inevitably lead to young Muslims and Arabs being equated with terrorists. If these individuals come to believe that law enforcement officials are overly keen to link them to terrorist acts, to investigate and arrest them, they are less likely to help voluntarily with police enquiries. Moreover, they are less likely to report dubious or unusual behaviour to the police. Many of the leads on terrorist activity that bodies such as the FBI follow up start out as nothing more than vague and petty concerns. Anti-profiling campaigners argue that targeted airport searches will undermine any possibility of creating an effective relationship between law enforcement agencies and Arab and Muslim communities.

[i] Harris in Cole (ed), 2011, p59

[ii] Harris in Cole (ed), 2011, pp51-56

[iii] Taylor in Cole (ed), 2011, pp42-43

[iv] US DOJ, 2003, p1. “Stereotyping certain races as having a greater propensity to commit crimes is absolutely prohibited”.

[v] Sheik Pal in Cole (ed), 2011, pp21-22

[vi] “At first glance. Racial profiling, burning hotter”. Derbyshire, J. The National Review, 05 October 2001.

[vii] Jealous, Kasravi, et al, 2004, pp8-9

[viii] Harris in Cole (ed), 2011, pp61-62

[ix] Taylor in Cole (ed), 2011, p45


When you know terrorists are likely to be members of particular national and ethnic groups, it is simply more practical to focus searches on those groups.

The reality is that all of the major terrorist attacks against Western targets in recent years have been perpetrated by young, Muslim men. It doesn’t require any prejudice at all to realise that they are the most sensible group to check and recheck.

Although it is important to respect people’s rights and liberties regardless of ethnicity or religious belief, a sensible security policy must force police officers and security officials to make decisions based on factual information. Everybody- including most members of the groups identified by profiling- has an interest in not being blown up on an aeroplane. They will, therefore, accept that this is a regrettable necessity. Airport staff can only stop so many people and it makes sense to target groups that terrorists are likely to be part of.


The presumption of innocence is a principle worth defending and an important part of this is rejecting policing strategies that assume certain groups are more likely to be engage in criminal activity than others. In the last ten years, a few dozen people, at most, have been involved in terrorist acts at airports. Meanwhile, millions upon millions of young, Muslim men have flown across continents and oceans without the slightest disruption.

It is both unfair and foolish to target a single group as being more likely to contain terrorists. It builds resentment among the group concerned and is unlikely to reveal any practical results because of the numbers concerned.

Profiling would have caught many of the perpetrators of terrorism in recent years.

Profiling takes account of many more characteristics than an individual’s ethnicity. Targeted checks would have caught, for example, the so called Christmas Day Bomber. Individuals who pay in cash for a one way flight while carrying no luggage, as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab[i] did, are a fairly small group and it makes sense to target them.

Profiling is a great deal more subtle than a decision to target a single ethnic group. It is entirely possible to identify patterns in the behaviour of terrorists, drug mules and smugglers, and to respond to that accordingly.

Obviously, the more refined the profile can be, the better. It is incredibly unlikely that an affluent, Caucasian businessman with a return ticket for the following day is either a suicide bomber or a drug smuggler. Both common sense and statistics show this to be the case.

[i] “Obama vows to repair intelligence gaps behind Detroit airplane incident”. The Washington post, 30 December 2009.


It is incredibly unlikely that any randomly selected member of a particular group would be attempting to commit a crime. Racial, ethnic and identity groups are extremely large. Terrorist organisations, even al Qaeda, rarely contain more than a few hundred members. The relative proportion of individuals belonging to any particular identity group who also belongs to a terrorist organisation is likely to be impossibly small.

The impact of the perceptions of the communities involved, however, would be significant, allowing for accusations of racism and persecution.

Statistically, profiling would have very little impact: in 2005, US Airlines carried 745.7 million passengers.[i] Faced with figures like that random stoppages make far more sense.

Although exact figures are not available even if just two or three million fell within the profile group, it would be impossible to search all of them. The use of profiling, however, as a result of the PATRIOT Act, led to, among others, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy being stopped; it does not and cannot work.[ii]

[i] ‘2005 Total Airline System Passenger Traffic Up 4.6 Percent From 2004’, Research and Innovative Transport Administration, 2006,

[ii] ‘Senetor? Terrorist? A Watch List Stops Kennedy at Airport’, Swarns, Rachel L., The New York Times, 20 August 2004,

The experience of Israel proves that profiling works

Israel has been using profiling for decades to identify those individuals at airports that should be stopped, questioned and have their luggage thoroughly checked[i].

Despite the massive threats that Israel faces, the Israeli state does not feel the need to invade the privacy of most passengers because they simply know what and who they are looking for. This approach has meant that, despite high odds, hijackings and bombings are not the routine affairs on El Al flights that one might expect it to be.

As the focus for terrorist atrocities has now become the US and the UK, it simply makes sense to follow the example of a nation that has been such a target since its creation.

[i] “Exposing hostile intent”.


The scale of flights in Israel- both domestic and international- is tiny. Compared with the North American and European aviation markets, screening passengers entering and leaving Israeli territory requires an entirely different approach. Equally the racial diversity of Tel Aviv is quite different to New York and London.

The Pew Research Centre estimates that there are 2.6 million Muslims living in the US[i], a number equal to twice the population of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv combined. The pressures on airports between a small state in the Middle East and the transportation hubs of the US and Europe are totally different. The very account cited by Proposition talks about some passengers being interviewed for up to half an hour, that is a rather different prospect when dealing with JFK or Heathrow. It is just not a practical solution.

[i] “The future of the global muslim population”. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 2011.

Profiling is simply institutionalizing racism an reduces minorities to the status of second class citizens

Profiling is, in the end, simply wrong. Britain suffered for decades from the ‘innocent until proven Irish’ attitude of their security forces, which did nothing but engender resentment among Irish individuals who were trying to live and work in the United Kingdom. For western nations to make the same mistake in their approach to Muslims would be the gravest folly.

Aviation authorities are, ultimately, under the control of the state, and if a government announces that they consider all members of a group to be potential criminals, it sends out a very provocative message.


The use of the term “racism” suggests that assumptions made by screeners are based on prejudice, not fact. Profiling, which takes far more than race into account, has a solid basis in fact. It is entirely sensible to attempt to prevent criminal acts by being particularly cautious in the investigation of those groups and individuals that are most likely to pose a risk to other passengers.

Risking the lives of innocent passengers in the name of political correctness is simply absurd. These are measures that protect the security of thousands of passengers at the cost of minor inconvenience to a few.

Any reasonable traveller- Arab or not- would accept that there is a reason for these actions in the same way that passengers realise that delays caused by security controls and passport checks are an unavoidable nuisance in an era of routine international travel.

Randomly checking passengers’ identities is much safer than allowing terrorists to know in advance who the authorities are seeking.

Making statements in advance as to who is likely to be stopped at airports is the most dangerous action any government could take. There are innumerable ways in which it would be possible to perform a terrorist act, and random checks mean that all possible routes are equally likely to be apprehended.

By contrast, actively and visibly subjecting members of particular ethnic groups to stricter security checks will enable terrorists to determine where surveillance in airports is at its most lax. The most dangerous terrorist groups operate on an international level, recruiting attackers from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnic groups. It would therefore be comparatively easy for an organisation such as al Qaeda to mount an attack using only individuals who do not conform to the authorities’ profile of a potential terrorist.

More importantly random checks mean that all people, regardless of the background, age or appearance are equally deterred from considering criminal or terrorist acts.

On the basis that it would be impossible to search everyone at a major international airport, the deterrence factor offered by random stops is far more effective than searching a tiny proportion of a designated group.


In other areas of enforcement it is routine to use simple common sense when identifying security risks. A group of students coming off a cheap flight from Amsterdam are simply more likely to have illegal drugs in their possession than a group of pensioners returning from a tour of museums in St Petersburg.

Of course it is important that airport authorities should be vigilant and avoid making damaging assumptions, but that is no reason for them to be reckless.

There are a limited number of people that can be stopped and searched or questioned at an airport; wasting that time on passengers who are extremely unlikely to pose any threat presents a substantial risk of peoples’ lives and safety.

Profiling exacerbates terrorism as it reinforces the perception that Muslims and marginalised ethnic groups face prejudice.

The reality is that if a plane can be held up with a box-cutter, a broken glass bottle from duty free or flammable alcohol from the same source could be just as threatening.

However, increased use of air marshals- armed plainclothes police officers who travel secretly on certain flights- means that even these desperate tactics are likely to be ineffectual.

Institutionalising prejudice and assumption will add legitimacy and grativas to terrorist propaganda that seeks to radicalise curious or confused young people.

Not only is profiling ineffectual, it is likely to exacerbate the situation.


This opposition argument is potentially contradictory. It argues that the majority of Muslims are reasonable people and then, on the other hand, that the moment reasonable security measures are put into place there will be a massive increase in radicalised young people willing to act as suicide bombers.

Everybody accepts that security checks are necessary at airports and for the most part they are applied universally. However, if opposition is correct, it would seem absurd to suggest that millions of reasonable people would suddenly take affront at the simple fact that they happen to be part of a social group that has an unusually high number of rogue elements. Indeed, suggesting such a thing could be construed as a racist act; implying that the people concerned are in some way incapable of reaching this regrettable, if logical, conclusion.


Cole, D (editor). Securing Liberty. IDEBATE Press, 2011.

Jealous, B and Kasravi, N. Threat and Humiliation. Racial Profil;ing, domestic security and human rights in

The United States. Amnesty International, 2004. Huang, L-S and DiBiase, N (editors).

Freedom vs Security: the struggle for balance. IDEBATE Press, 2010.

Swarns, Rachel L., 'Senator? Terrorist? A Watch List Stops Kennedy at Airport’,  The New York Times, 20 August 2004,

“Exposing hostile intent”.

“At first glance. Racial profiling, burning hotter”. Derbyshire, J. The National Review, 05 October 2001.

“Obama vows to repair intelligence gaps behind Detroit airplane incident”. The Washington post, 30 December 2009.

“The future of the global muslim population”. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 2011.

United States Department of Justice. Fact Sheet. Racial Profiling. Justice.goc, 2003