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Originally published Wednesday, August 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

A profile of failed intelligence

Targeted profiling by law enforcement following the terrorists bombings in London and heightened alerts in New York City once again raise...

Targeted profiling by law enforcement following the terrorists bombings in London and heightened alerts in New York City once again raise concerns about the fairness of racial profiling.

The fairness issue aside, profiling people on no other basis but the color of their skin is hugely ineffective. If this is the best response our heralded Western intelligence network has to offer, we're all headed to hell on the express train.

In New York, police have set up inspection points at bus stops, ferries and railroads, typically stopping every fifth rider and ordering backpacks, rolling suitcases and other bags opened for quick searches. Refuse a search and you'll have to leave the system. My advice: Leave the system very slowly and keep your hands in clear view.

Otherwise, you could end up like the Brazilian shot seven times in the head in London. His only crime was an impulse to run when confronted by a group of white guys who turned out to be plainclothes cops.

Hearing that story, I felt a chill snake down my spine. Heck, I've turned and run to avoid seeing pesky friends! Civil-liberties advocates are only half-exaggerating when they warn people of color in London to avoid running for the train or bus. The war on terror has raised the stakes from the days when comedian Richard Pryor teased that when stopped by police, he sought to avoid an accidental shooting by saying in a slow, loud voice, "I AM REACHING FOR MY WALLET."

The prospect that a search may reveal bombs or other illegal weapons is tempting. But look at the underwhelming impact of domestic racial profiling. We haven't won a single battle in the war on drugs in large part because our weapons focused too narrowly on certain drugs and certain kinds of people. After this country's experiences beating back the crack epidemic, you'd have thought we'd be prepared for the scourge of methamphetamine. Hardly. We didn't notice the blue-eyed rural boys cooking meth because we were narrowly fixated on brown-eyed urban boys.

As long as our security system is defined along narrow gullies of black and white, we'll always be on the offense. We'll be looking for Arabs, while terrorists of other hues, such as Jamaicans, East Africans and even the occasional white boy from California slip past unnoticed.

We'll get caught up in a tornado of profiles based on color and miss the other critical links that allow terrorism to travel unchallenged among citizens with as much to live for as you and I.

Based on recent man-on-the-street interviews aired on the BBC, CNN and other news outlets, some support racial profiling as necessary policing. If you're innocent, those interviewed say, you'll be searched and sent on your merry way.

Of course, few of those I've seen interviewed are Arab. We humans tend to be bolder when gambling with other people's lives.

Racial profiling may not keep us safe but it will revive a stereotype we had almost put to rest. A recent poll shows that the percentage of Americans who believe Islam is more likely than other religions to inspire violence has declined in the past two years. The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, was taken after the London bombings.

But it doesn't take much to revive racial suspicion. It was no surprise to hear that five British tourists were snatched from a New York City sightseeing bus one recent Sunday because the bus operator thought they looked suspicious. The men, all British Sikhs, were handcuffed and forced to kneel on the sidewalk in front of dozens of onlookers while police stood guard and searched the bus. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasted little time calling the office of the British consul to apologize.

In the end, we're doomed if we don't expand our battle plan beyond suspicious glances at Arabs and threats of war against any country that doesn't agree with us. We ought to have fewer cops searching backpacks and more studying Arabic and counterintelligence. We ought to spend less time throwing barbs at Iran and more time figuring out what Pakistan has done for us — or to us — lately. A virulent form of pan-Islam is uniting Muslims from Russia to Somalia. That can't be fought with racial profiling.

Most people know such narrow-minded policing is wrong. But they believe we have to start somewhere and start quickly. I disagree. If you're headed in the wrong direction, leaving early won't help.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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