Leonard Pitts, the Miami Herald columnist, was unable to get a cab late at night in New York because, he assumed, of his skin color. He was probably correct. That is an injustice.

But, on the other hand, cabbies have a point of view. Experience has taught them that lone black men are a peril. More than three-quarters of cab robberies in New York have been committed by black men. Why should cabbies be required to face unnecessary risk?

Racial identification by police is common. There are few police (including black officers) who do not, under some circumstances, allow skin color to affect their thinking. The resulting resentment among blacks is palpable. Mr. Pitts quoted a black friend who was stopped by police one night after a high-speed chase, as feeling a “shock of pride” in his partner, who “spun around to fire his rifle at a cop.”

Maybe he was “proud” – but, please imagine that cop as someone’s daughter who had chosen police work for a career.

Officials charged with airport security anywhere in the world face the same predicament as cabbies and police. To state that terrorists are disproportionately Arabic is to state simple fact. Consequently, “behavioral profiles,” consisting mostly of identifiable external characteristics, have been adopted in many countries – characteristics that justify stop and search. In the U.S., it’s not so easy. Some profiling is against the law. Sunglasses, sweating, over-politeness, hostility or concealing clothing might be used by security agents. But how about skin color, hair and head dress, religious clothing or markings? Do government agents abuse an individual’s civil liberties when they grip and strip, based on such criteria? How about Roman Catholic nuns wearing their habits?

There needs to be a balance between security on the one hand and the loss of “rights” on the other. Israel, the acknowledged world leader in airline security, uses any and all profiling with great success – yet one would be hard pressed to find a nation more concerned with civil rights (or a nation more litigious, for that matter)

Government intrusion on personal rights should be taken only with grave necessity. People must yield the streets to a presidential cavalcade. They cannot shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. But how far should citizens permit the government camel to worm its nose into the tent of their freedoms? Everyone wants safety, but few want to look out the kitchen window to see a 747 aiming at the cow barn.

Maybe America hasn’t found the right proportion in the overall scheme of things. The automobile has become so important that the United States sacrifices 30,000 lives a year in order to drive the way people want. That number could be reduced significantly with more restrictions, but the country chooses not to. The capture and use of an airplane on such as the World Trade Center could be prevented simply by fortifying the cockpits – much as the Taiwanese have been doing for 50 years – leaving only suicide crashes likely to have little widespread effect beyond the aircraft and its passengers.

What would be the level of restrictions at which people would it be willing to lose an occasional airplane? Would an aircraft a week be an acceptable tradeoff for more personal freedom among travelers? A month? How about one per year?

Or should we crack down on every suspicion – regardless of individual freedoms?

How about Barack Obama in tribal dress?

You set the profile.

Rodney Quinn, who lives in Gorham, is a former Maine secretary of state. He can be reached at [email protected]


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