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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2001 / 18 Tishrei, 5762

Matthew Miller

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Consumer Reports

Schizophrenic over profiling -- THE flight attendant wanted to help.

It was five days after the attacks, and my 4-year-old and I had arranged flights back from New York to Los Angeles through Minneapolis. On the ground in Minneapolis, after taking our seats, I craned my neck to scrutinize every passenger. I must have looked quite intent because the flight attendant came right over.

"Can I help you?" she asked. "What are you looking for?"

I didn't hesitate or hide it.

"I'm looking for Arabs," I said.

I know it sounds awful, I added defensively, but this is real life. She nodded sympathetically.

"Our security people have been over the manifest three times," she said. "We're very comfortable that we're OK."

I looked in the direction of two 20-something males with dark complexions who appeared to be traveling without families.

"What about them?" I asked.

"They're Mexicans," she said instantly.

I felt terrible afterward --- confused and ashamed, but also determined. All I cared about was that my daughter and I were safe.

In the days since, we've heard many stories about Arabs being taken off flights at the request of fearful flyers and crews. I understand these fears, not least because we see fresh stories daily about airline security - amazingly - still being lax.

Maybe you've experienced my emotional schizophrenia. Part of me feels that if, G-d forbid, another act of terrorism occurs and Arabs are the perpetrators, the authorities will be more than justified in applying serious new levels of scrutiny to Arabs in the United States.

As Israel's transportation minister put it: "Not many people who look like Swedes have tried to hijack airliners. Either the United States will improve its security, or it will engage in academic discussions."

Yet part of me feels heartsick that things could come to this pass. It's not an abstract question now that 280 million people are waiting for the next shoe to drop. And so I've wondered: If more attacks gave our government little choice but to profile aggressively, could there be a way to acknowledge the injustice for the 99.9 percent of the 3.5 million Arab-Americans who might feel humiliated and wronged by it?

Talking with Hussein Ibish of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, I tossed out an idea. What if we agreed to compensate Arab-Americans right now for any injustice? Uncle Sam gives you 500 dollars, say, if you're asked to get off a plane. Or the government makes a $5,000 payment to put up with some kind of registration and vetting via the FBI if it comes to that.

"How about I give you 5,000 bucks for your freedom of speech?" Ibish shot back.

He elaborated: "People who come from already-stigmatized ethnic minority groups object to the notion of having to wear a gold star of David on their lapel. That's basically what you're talking about: having some marker of identification that differentiates you from the rest of society."

Go down this road, Ibish warned, and soon you're talking about internment camps, or worse.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told me the focus has to be on things like cockpit security and intelligence. His humiliating experience being interrogated for three hours by Israeli airport security while traveling to join then-Vice President Gore for a meeting a few years ago has soured him deeply.

Any form of ID card would have to be universal, Zogby adds. Otherwise it would be like tattooing an "A" on people's arms, an abominable act - not to mention ineffective, since you can't identify everyone who's in an ethnic group by their appearance.

It's not clear that average Americans of Middle Eastern origin share these leaders' views. An Iranian Muslim woman who manages two salons in Los Angeles told me she and her friends "totally understand the fear."

"If they want to check my background" or make her report for some kind of clearance, she says, "I'm all for it." Just tell us in advance, she says, so we can have what we need at the airport. And do whatever you do for all Middle Eastern types --- not just Muslims.

"I don't think of it as discrimination," she explains. "If the body has a cancer, they have to use poison to get rid of the cancer. Antidotes usually mean poison. We have to get weaker to get stronger."

Let's pray we get things under control without having to put that eloquent proposition to the test.

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