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Wednesday, November 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Ethnic profiling won't preserve our way of life

Special to The Times

There is no question that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America has changed. More accurately, America is evolving — and that evolution is still taking shape as we attempt to cope with the "new normalcy" that we can expect as we go about our daily lives.

Even while the president and his administration have enjoyed virtually universal support and justly deserved praise as they proceed with the foreign diplomatic and military responses to the attacks, the new changes and policies being proposed and implemented in the domestic intelligence and law-enforcement areas have created the most controversy and genuine concern.

Indeed, many Americans feel we have come perilously close to "trampling" on some of our most cherished freedoms and civil liberties. For them, Attorney General John Ashcroft has become a lightning rod for opposition to many of the new policies and to some key components of the antiterrorism legislation passed by the Congress.

Recently, John Conyers, the ranking senior Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, held a press conference with most of the Congressional Black Caucus behind him to caution all Americans to be careful lest we see a "wholesale assault on civil liberties in this country."

It is significant that some of our nation's top African-American elected leaders were raising these concerns because, although I don't agree with all of their reservations about new antiterrorism legislation, I recognize that they truly understand the one issue with which I completely share their concern: racial and ethnic profiling.

Information has been shared with the public to suggest that the FBI will shift its primary focus from civil rights and environmental law enforcement and from federal bank robbery and interstate crime enforcement to primarily domestic intelligence and antiterrorism activities. First of all, as upset as I am about the events of Sept. 11, I am still in no mood to see our nation's primary national law-enforcement agency retreat in its duty to protect all Americans under our existing civil-rights laws and to protect our environment from would-be polluters. But if the FBI feels they should no longer get involved just because a 1972 Chevy Nova was stolen and driven across the state line from Ohio into Kentucky, I believe I can live with that.

As one of the first salvos in the re-shaping of the focus of the FBI, Attorney General Ashcroft has requested that police chiefs around the country assist in rounding up some 5,000 to 10,000 "young, Middle Eastern" men to question them on anything they might know about the Sept. 11 attacks. Now let me be unambiguous about my position on this issue. If anyone, male or female, is a credible suspect in not only the Sept. 11 events themselves but also has knowledge of or is known to have had contact with those involved or even associates of those who were in any way involved, then there is every justification to question such individuals — and I don't care whether they are from the Middle East or the Midwest.

But the essence of the Ashcroft Justice Department request, which is to have Middle Eastern young men come in for detailed questioning without any evidence of any involvement except that they are Middle Eastern young men, is wrong, unjustified, and is at the heart of the most heinous aspects of racial profiling. We must not quietly allow this activity to flourish as a "means to an end," even an end that we all want to reach. That is not what makes America great.

And let no one feel comfortable or "safe" simply because this time, it's not their group. All Americans know the history of profiling both in our great country and throughout the world, and we must continue to represent the highest ideals for which this country stands and for which Americans — white, black, Jewish, Catholic, Asian and Americans of Middle Eastern descent — have also died for. Whether it was the terrible pogroms in Europe and Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries that targeted Jews or whether it was politically sanctioned anti-Catholic profiling right here at home in the 1800s, Americans understand that we as a great nation of free people have an obligation to be better than that.

Some police chiefs around the country certainly understand this point. Just this past week, several of them have informed the Justice Department that they will not participate in rounding up Middle Eastern young men to detain and question them with no basis or credible evidence to justify such actions. And their reasons include not only moral discomfort but also the hard fact that police departments have been losing racial-profiling lawsuits on a regular basis.

President Bush says we are fighting the war on terrorism to "protect our American freedoms" and preserve our "way of life." I expect him to do exactly that. Racial and ethnic profiling cannot be the American "way of life." Indeed, before Sept. 11, that was one aspect of the American "way of life" we were fighting against. Even in the "new normalcy," that must not change.

Carl Jeffers is president of Intel Marketing Associates and CJS InfoConsulting, franchise consulting and information-services firms. Contact him at cjintel@juno.com.

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