Americans back anti-terrorism racial profiling: poll

BOSTON – Most Americans expect a terrorist attack on the United States in the next few months and support the screening of people who look “Middle Eastern” at airports and train stations, a poll showed on Tuesday.

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said 62 percent of Americans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that terrorists would strike the nation in the next few months while 37 percent were “not too worried” or “not worried at all.”

The poll of 1,080 voters, conducted August 17-23, comes as many Americans are jittery after British authorities foiled a plot to blow up planes but is broadly in line with other surveys on expectations for another attack since September 11.

By a 60 percent to 37 percent margin, respondents said authorities should single out people who look “Middle Eastern” for security screening at locations such as airports and train stations — a finding that drew sharp criticism by civil liberties groups.

“It’s an unfortunate by-product to the fear and hysteria we’re hearing in many quarters,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy organization.

“It’s one of those things that makes people think they are doing something to protect themselves when they’re not. They’re in fact producing more insecurity by alienating the very people whose help is necessary in the war on terrorism,” he said.

Quinnipiac’s director of polling, Maurice Carroll, said he was surprised by the apparent public support for racial profiling. “What’s the motivation there — is it bigotry, or is it fear or is it practicality?” he said.

Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union say racial profiling has been on the rise since the September 11 attacks. Arab and Muslim men are often profiled for investigation and Sikhs have frequently been mistakenly perceived as being of Middle Eastern origin.

The ACLU last week accused security officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport of racially profiling Muslims.

“You really need some indication of individualized concern before you target someone for closer examination,” said Dennis Parker, an ACLU director. “One of the reasons for the U.S. Constitution was to protect the rights of minorities.”

The poll also said most Americans rank the September 11 attacks as more significant than the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Fifty-six percent cited September 11, while the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War Two was named most important by 33 percent of the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But the poll shows a deep split between young and old. September 11 is named most important by 72 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34, but the proportion falls to 42 percent for people over 65. Some advised caution with the findings.

“People have fresh memories of 9-11 and many don’t have any memories at all of Pearl Harbor, and those who do don’t have fresh memories of it,” said Bruce Schulman, a Boston University professor of history and American studies.