Commentary: Jihad Jane and the trouble with profiling

The Miami HeraldMarch 16, 2010 

Evil is not a color.

It has no particular religion nor creed, nor style of dress, nor gender nor geographic home. Evil is an equal opportunity employer.

One hopes we learn at least that much from the adventures of Jihad Jane.

That, according to federal prosecutors, is the name Colleen LaRose used when she went online to say how "desperate" she was to do something to help Muslims. That desperation allegedly led her deep into the shadowy world of fundamentalist extremism.

LaRose, prosecutors say, used the Internet to recruit would-be terrorists. She allegedly sought to kill a Swedish artist who had angered Muslims by depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a dog's body. LaRose is also said to have agreed to marry one of her conspirators. According to the indictment, she wrote that it would be"an honor & great pleasure to die or kill" for her intended.

Seven alleged members of the would-be terror cell have been apprehended in Ireland. That's in addition to LaRose, who was arrested in Philadelphia in October. She was indicted last week.

Which ought to serve as a rebuke to the guy standing in the airport security line grumbling at how the TSA agent is running his wand over some dewy-eyed grandmother who obviously isn't a threat.

Even more, it should rebuke pundits like Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter and Kathleen Parker, who, in the wake of Sept. 11, argued for ethnic profiling in airport security. Pat down swarthy, bearded young men with Middle Eastern accents and exotic head gear, they said, and leave the rest of us alone.

Jihad Jane is the reason that's a dumb idea. She is, according to published reports and photos, 4'11" tall, 105 pounds and 46 years of age, with pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. She is, literally, a citizen of Main Street, USA, having made her home on that thoroughfare in the Philadelphia suburb of Pennsburg where she was a caretaker for her boyfriend's father. Until, that is, she disappeared, along with her boyfriend's passport, which she allegedly intended to give to her terrorist fiance.

There are several good arguments against profiling. It's morally wrong. It's an abridgement of civil liberties.

But the most compelling of them is embodied by Jihad Jane. Put aside squishy appeals to conscience and principle and deal instead with hard pragmatism. Pragmatism will tell you that to concentrate solely on swarthy Middle Eastern men is to turn a blind eye to everyone else. But as demonstrated by LaRose, by convicted terrorists Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, and John Walker Lindh, and any number of others here and abroad, terror comes in both genders and all cultures and shades.

And here, it might be fruitful to recall a point Kathleen Parker made in her 2002 column on profiling. She noted her own profile (‘"a smallish, middle-aged, Anglo-Saxon, 14th-generation American" woman) and asked pointedly:"when was the last time a U.S. citizen fitting my description hijacked an airplane" The question becomes darkly comic in the wake of this arrest. LaRose, after all, fits the same profile, at least in the broad parameters, and if she didn't hijack an airplane, we can assume it wasn't for lack of ambition.

The moral of the story: to depend for our safety on profiling is to open a gap in our already gap-ridden security. It creates a blind spot. One can envision TSA giving some Middle Eastern businessman the third degree while a tiny blonde saunters by with a bomb in her purse.

So we should be thankful for the vigilance of federal authorities who nabbed Jihad Jane. In the process, they remind us: evil is not a color, a religion, a gender or a style of dress.

That shouldn't need saying. Somehow, it always does.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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