The Politics of Fear (Updated)

The other day, I put up a post considering the issue of profiling in airports. I concluded that there are just too many problems to make it an easy solution, including the fact that serious terror organizations could probably find ways around it.

My motivation for doing so was to consider an alternative to draconian measures such as banning liquids on flights. Well, as it turns out, this may just be a case of politicizing terror threats--and the investigation might even have been prematurely terminated.

I've read recently--sorry, I couldn't find the links in a cursory search, so deal--that the information leading to the arrests was garnered from torture victims in Pakistan, and that the explosives they were supposed to use would be insanely difficult to make on board of an airplane (the reactions require lots of ice and temperature monitoring, and a lot of stirring over a few hours, among other things).

Unfortunately for Bush & Co., the GOP didn't get the bump in support they were hoping for (boy who cried wolf, anyone?), but they have managed to provoke irrational fear and racism, as Glenn Greenwald reports:

All of the fear-mongering and political exploitation of terrorism from the Bush administration and its loyal supporters (including the British Prime Minister) is starting to produce predictable results. Passengers are becoming unwilling to fly on planes with Arab males. Yesterday, British passengers on a Monarch Airways flight to Manchester "mutinied" because there were two Arab men on the plane:

British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.

Glenn goes on to make, more forcefully, some of the points I tried to make earlier:

It would be really great -- so, so comforting -- if terrorists could be identified by looking at their faces. But as is true with the use of torture as an interrogation tool, one can leave aside the moral questions if one insists because singling out Arab-looking males is a stupid, ineffective and totally irrational method for finding terrorists. Islamic extremists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, nationalities, and genders. If the category of suspects is narrowed to Arab-looking males, fewer things will help terrorists more since they will simply use terrorists whose physical appearance and demographic characteristics place them outside of the targeted class.

But it is the irrational fear here that is so striking, and really quite pitiful. They have whipped people into a state of such intense paranoia that they quiver at the sight of two Arab males on their plane. There is roughly one billion Muslims in the world, including some countries which have more than 100 million. The U.S. alone has 10 million. Enormous numbers of Muslims are not Arab and do not reside in Arab countries. There are 320 million people living in Arab states, and it should go without saying that only a tiny handful of them are "terrorists" (and that many terrorists reside elsewhere). To start refusing to fly or take buses or trains or be in the same room with the males in that population -- which is clearly the path we are on -- is just stupid, hysterical, and counter-productive from every perspective.

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Apparently the rightwing blogs are applauding this reactionary racism. Big surprise, huh?

Reading this, I can't help but wonder how the fear has gotten to me personally. I already have irrational fears associated with flying--telling myself that I'm more likely to die on the interstate en route to the airport doesn't seem to help for some reason--and perhaps it's not so difficult to throw some other fears into the mix. Was this what really prompted me to consider the question of profiling?

It's times like this when you can see how Bush is a far more effective terrorist than Osama bin Laden is. I recently saw V for Vendetta, and while some have derogated the movie as superficial, I really liked it and think it's a nice reminder of the danger that fear-driven politics poses for our world.

We must remember, racism is bad not simply for the harm it does to minority populations, but because it is irrational. Statistically speaking, even if you find that one group surpasses another group in some characteristic on average, you can't use such knowledge to predict group status on an individual basis. For instance, men are taller than women on average, but if I tell you that a person is 6 feet tall, that by no means necessitates that it's a man.

This is especially so for something like terrorism, for only a tiny fraction of individuals of any race, religion, or nationality are aspiring suicide bombers. If we forget this, we let the terrorists and Republican politicians win.

UPDATE: Glenn links to this great analysis of the British incident at Mahablog. Definitely worth reading.

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