LONDON, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- The race row prompted by a British proposal to introduce ethnic passenger profiling at airports to root out potential terrorists foreshadows the community divisions that will result from such a measure.
Muslim groups have responded with outrage to reports of the plans, accusing the authorities of ignorance about the make-up of the Islamic community, while a senior police officer protested that such a move would create an offense of "traveling while Asian."
Controversy erupted when the Times of London reported Tuesday that following Thursday's terror alert the Department for Transport was reexamining the possibility of profiling passengers on the basis of their ethnic or religious background. Officials had been discussing the practicalities of such a system with airport operators for a year, the newspaper reported; however until last week, the disadvantages had been thought to outweigh the advantages.
A senior aviation industry source was quoted as saying: "The DfT is ultra-sensitive about this and won't say anything publicly because of political concerns about being accused of racial stereotyping."
The reports have sparked a vigorous debate between lawmakers, police and Muslim leaders over the efficacy of such a move.
Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Ali Desai, one of the country's most senior Muslim police officers, said that while profiling on the basis of behavior or suspicious travel patterns could be effective, the system became "hugely problematic" when based on ethnicity, religion and country of origin.
"I don't think there's a stereotypical image of a terrorist," he told the BBC. "What you are suggesting is that we should have a new offense in this country called 'traveling whilst Asian'.
"That's unpalatable to everyone. It is communities that defeat terrorism, and what we don't want to do is actually alienate the very communities who are going to help us catch terrorists."
Desai also alluded to the erroneousness of the perception that all terrorists were young males of Middle Eastern appearance.
"We cannot lose sight of the fact that terrorists come in all shapes and sizes," he said. "Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, would have certainly gone through the security system because he was a white male."
He was backed by John Denham, the Labor chairman of Parliament's Home Affairs Committee, who noted that those involved in terrorist activities included people of all races and ages.
"From a security point of view, it could prove to be quite misleading," he said.
Others, however, argue that opponents of ethnic profiling are simply jumping on the political correctness bandwagon and closing their eyes to the fact that most recent terror attacks in the West have been perpetrated by young Muslim men.
Former Metropolitan Police Chief Lord John Stevens has lent his support to profiling at all airports, saying Islamic terrorism in the West has been "universally carried out by young Muslim men," usually traveling alone or in small groups.
Meanwhile Times of London columnist Martin Samuel scoffed at arguments that terrorists rarely fit a certain profile.
"In the event of racial profiling, there will be no Mid-Surrey branch of al-Qaida forming on the hoof. As for cunning disguises, we know them. There are two looks: beard on and beard off," he wrote.
Evidently neither Lord Stevens or Samuel have ever attended a meeting of the outlawed militant group al-Muhajiroun, which counts numerous young men, women and even children of white and black British descent among its members.
When this UPI journalist went undercover into a London meeting of the group last year, she was shocked to meet a significant number of white British converts to this radical interpretation of Islam, many of whom were young women from middle class families in rural counties such as Dorset, Somerset and yes, even Surrey.
Like their dark-skinned, bearded associates, they too swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and pledged to raise their children to become suicide bombers, with no apparent concern that they did not fit the usual profile of a potential terrorist.
A similarly flagrant disregard for stereotypes was displayed by July 7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, of Jamaican origin, and the white British Muslim convert suspected in last week's airline plot, from the genteel Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe.
One can be sure that should Osama bin Laden get wind that airport officials are focusing their search on young men of Asian appearance, individuals like these will be the first he turns to carry out his next plot.
Likewise, the assumption that all citizens of the Arab and Muslim world are of one appearance is mistaken. Throughout the Middle East, particularly in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran, there are millions of individuals with fair coloring who would be indistinguishable from their European or American counterparts.
Similarly, individuals with dark coloring hail from all parts of the Western world. As was evident in the police shooting of an innocent Brazilian man mistaken for a suicide bomber in London last year, security officials often cannot tell the difference.
Some analysts argue that although potential terrorists cannot be identified on the basis of their ethnic appearance, it is possible to target security processes more effectively by ruling out passengers who were clearly not engaged in terrorist activity, for example businessmen or families.
But even this is a dangerous assumption to make. International terrorists have already demonstrated their ability to evade most of the security measures implemented thus far; do we believe them to be incapable of donning a business suit or taking a child on board?
As the Association of Chief Police Officers rightly warns, stereotyping terror suspects will "create a gap" in policing for terrorists to exploit. Start looking for dark-haired individuals and one can be certain that al-Qaida will put aside its contempt for western values and start reaching for the peroxide, if it furthers their cause.