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Tuesday, October 9, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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William Raspberry / Syndicated columnist

When special scrutiny clashes with our sense of civility

WASHINGTON — It was the mid-1970s, and the District of Columbia was in the midst of a peculiar crime wave: the theft of 10-speed bikes.

So great was the problem that the city police announced that bike owners could go to their local precinct station and have special registration numbers etched on the bottom of the pedal crank housing and recorded by the police. That way, any biker could quickly prove ownership of either the bicycle he was using or the one the police had recovered. Of course, the ID program also allowed on-duty officers to spot check for bikes that may have been stolen.

Thus it was that my wife looked out the kitchen window one morning to see our teenage foster son, his 10-speed upside-down, trying to explain his innocence to the cop who had stopped him. The officer calmly phoned in the ID number and, satisfied, told Reggie he was free to go.

How upset should Reggie have been? How upset should my wife and I have been?

Oh, one more fact about that peculiar crime wave. Virtually all of the bike thefts (as far as anyone knew) were the work of black males in their teens or early 20s (which, of course, is not at all the same as saying that virtually all young black males were bike thieves).

Was it smart policing or just another manifestation of police insensitivity that most of the people asked to upend their bikes for police inspection were young black males?

Should there have been no spot-checking of bikes? Random spot-checking of, say, every 10th bike — even if it were ridden by a 53-year-old woman on her way home from the grocery? Checking only in those cases where riders reacted nervously to the sight of the police?

When I put the questions to students in my Race & Equity seminar at Duke University the other day, they were as uncertain as my wife and I had been a quarter-century ago — but absolutely certain that my questions weren't really about 10-speed bikes but about Arabs and airport security.

But at the end of the class, they still didn't know what to do — or even what they thought.

Should Arab-looking men be singled out for special scrutiny? Of course not — unless, that is, they seem somehow "suspicious" to security officers or to fellow passengers. But such suspiciousness seldom can be articulated. What should security do?

Some students wanted to give everybody special scrutiny, but quickly realized the impossibility. Some wanted special scrutiny for nobody (beyond X-raying their bags and perhaps wand-checking their bodies), but soon saw the danger of such a policy.

We never arrived at a comfortable equilibrium between security and civility, though in practical terms we might have settled for a spot-check system that included little old ladies but that also definitely included the one or two Arab men who somehow made us nervous.

What makes us uncomfortable, of course, is the prospect of giving special attention to — and inflicting special embarrassment upon — individuals on the basis of their race, apparent ethnicity or any other factor over which they have no control. We all put our bags through X-ray machines and submit, without hesitation or misgiving, to whatever additional checks security workers might impose.

But imagine discovering that most passengers were waved through after only the most cursory inspection and that only people who looked like you were asked to step aside for closer examination. How long would it be before you went a little nuts — thereby "proving" to the inspectors that their suspicions were well-founded?

A friend of mine told me the other day of the time, some years ago, when he was flying out of Pakistan on a plane on which "everybody looked like bin Laden except me." The robed and bearded passengers, all male, looked to him like the stereotype of a terrorist.

So whose luggage was opened up, gifts unwrapped and carefully packed clothing disarranged? Who was pulled aside for a close-up-and-personal body search? Only my business-suited, mild-mannered and white friend.

He found it kinda funny.

I wonder how much chuckling he'd do after the fourth repetition — or the 20th — and how amusing he would find it to know beforehand that if anyone was subjected to special scrutiny, he'd be the one.

William Raspberry's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.

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