Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants may have failed to go off, they have certainly ignited the debate around the use of profiling to assess the risk passengers pose to aircraft security. This has been the elephant in the room ever since 9/11, but this week the British government admitted passenger profiling was "in the mix". Is this simply a detached, dispassionate practice, or is it also subject to unhelpful cultural bias?
As the press sifted through the known facts from his time spent studying in the UK, The Times noted last Wednesday that Mr Abdulmutallab was the fourth head of a Muslim Society from a college of the University of London to be arrested on terrorist offences. It's the sort of statistic that actually says very little, because on its own, its a dead end: does that put all Muslims in the frame, heads of Muslim Societies at UK universities, or, indeed, anyone at all? It's an innuendo in search of significance. But it has power in the mind because of the power of the crime of terrorism. It only takes one person to panic an entire nation. If we were to find that, statistically, several heads of the Rugby Society at University of London colleges had been arrested for drunkenness, it would be just as insignificant as a statistic, but we are likely to take a measured view because of the perceived threat to ourselves posed by drunks versus terrorists.
Does the activity of Mr Abdulmutallab put us in the clear to consider Muslim devotion a threat to our bodies regardless of the individual or to insist on more rigorous searches at airports? The fact that high-profile recent terrorist incidents in our sphere of interest have been committed by Islamists leaves those of us outside the faith conducting our own unconscious profiling whenever we are at an airport. But it is interesting how this form of cultural risk assessment is reported, when compared with something closer to home.
At about the same time as Mr Abdulmutullab was buying his special y-fronts, the Murphy Report was released in Ireland, as a follow up to the earlier Ryan Report published in May. Between them these reports set out in depressing detail the astonishing levels of abuse perpetrated by officers of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland upon children, decade after decade, and how that behaviour was covered up, denied and explained away with complicity at the highest levels of the church.
It would be possible to argue that, given the numbers of victims involved, the Church in Ireland has destroyed more lives than Abdulmutullab ever could have - though that would be to create a sick competition. However, we do feel able to idly speculate whether being a Muslim makes you more likely to be a terrorist - yet at the same time, I hear no debates in the press about whether being a Catholic priest makes you more likely to be a child abuser or pederast. In the one case, we can see beyond the collective to the individual, in the other they are all tarred with the same brush.
Returning to our original question, it seems about the only thing Mr Abdulmutullab didn't do was print a "I'm a Terrorist" T-shirt, since he was granted an entry Visa to the USA, despite being on at least one list of suspicious or undesirable persons, paid cash for the ticket and took no luggage with him. The nonsense reactions of those in charge of US air security reflect a desperate desire to reassure people than actually any useful precautions, not to mention to deflect a degree of political embarrassment. Under the precautionary principle, I am reasonably happy to accept a degree of profiling based upon intelligence and statistcal evidence, and sorry if that upsets a few people who fit an unfortunate profile. On the other hand, I'd also insist on the same level of scrutiny being applied to all religious zealots put in a position of where they are capable of causing harm.
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