Avoiding the Stereotype Trap After the Boston Attack

When it comes to the safety of our families and our country, the temptation to give in to stereotypes is powerful, but doing so actually undermines that safety.
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Our mind intuitively categorizes people and things into stereotypes to help us make sense of the world. This is how we "think fast," as Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow. Last week's tragic bombing in Boston evoked much speculation about who fits the profile, really another word for stereotype, of a Boston Marathon bomber. When it comes to the safety of our families and our country, the temptation to give in to stereotypes is powerful, but doing so actually undermines that safety.

Kahneman notes that stereotyping is a bad word in our culture, even though "the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories." Upon learning that that the likely perpetrators of last week's horrible attacks in Boston were Muslim, Congressman Peter King (R-NY) urged that we put aside what is "politically correct" and fortify a stereotype of American Muslims by intensifying mass surveillance of them based simply on their faith.

It's not just politicians. Law enforcement agencies have also actively relied on stereotypes of Muslims. Doing so led the FBI to single out for questioning a Saudi young man injured at the scene of the bombing and search his apartment, even though his actual conduct was no different from the hundreds of other spectators injured there. Stereotyping of Arabs by Boston police caused them to surround a United Airlines plane in spectacular fashion after it was grounded based only on reports of two men engaged in the "suspicious" act of speaking Arabic. Of course, law enforcement's targeting of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans began long before Boston.

The NYPD's ongoing discriminatory policing has included planting informants and undercover officers in mosques, restaurants and stores without any evidence of wrongdoing. Such practices are having devastating effects on Muslim communities in New York City and New Jersey. On the federal level, the FBI is mapping American communities on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, and Customs and Border Protection agents routinely question Americans returning from abroad about their religious beliefs and practices if agents perceive them to be Muslim.

When it comes to deciding if these discriminatory policies are sound, we need to get past "thinking fast." Kahneman explains that when "thinking slow," we are able to engage in careful analysis and integrate objective data. Such thinking requires consideration of the numerous studies that have been done on the sources of violent extremism in the United States. Not one of them suggests that surveillance or enhanced law enforcement scrutiny of Americans simply because they are Muslim is warranted.

Indeed, as Todd McGhee, former Massachusetts State Police officer and cofounder of Protecting the Homeland Innovations stated last week, "No religion and no culture or ethnicity has a monopoly on terrorism." From Sandy Hook to Aurora to Oak Creek to Tucson, mass killings have become a disturbing new reality for Americans. Moreover, targeting people based on race or religion does no better in helping law enforcement officials in their task of catching terrorists than standard uniform random sampling techniques. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff rejects stereotyping, saying racial and religious profiling is "not only problematic from [a] civil rights standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective." The NYPD's Muslim spying program, the largest of its kind known to the public, has not produced a single lead to terrorism.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, and others have determined that the most serious threat of political violence comes from right-wing extremist groups. Yet, conservative members of Congress forced DHS to withdraw its report finding that "lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States."

There is another compelling reason for law enforcement not to focus on Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans simply based on their religious or ethnic identity: We are a nation of laws. Without exception, history has shown us that when the government targets groups of people as suspect simply because of personal characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, the result is a profound injustice. Our nation continues to carry the national shame caused by our departures from the basic constitutional principle of equal protection under the law, such as treating African Americans as inherently inferior, interning Japanese Americans during World War II, and excluding gays and lesbians from military service. Our nation benefits when we adhere to the rule of law rather than to racial, religious, and other stereotypes.

Kahneman is right that stereotyping is a way for us, as individuals, to function. But when it comes to keeping our country safe, law enforcement and public officials' actions should reflect careful analysis and objective data. They should heed his warning that "[s]ome stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences." This is a "psychological fact" that American Muslims know too well.

Glenn Katon is the Legal Director at Muslim Advocates and represents a group of New Jersey Muslims challenging the NYPD's spying program.

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