Let me apologize.  A massive technical glitch, involving distortions of the fourth dimension, has prevented me from researching the column I intended to write about ethnic and racial profiling.  The column would have pointed out that many people who complain about profiling fail to define just what the term means.  They confuse blatant examples of crude racial discrimination—police stopping people solely on the basis of “Driving While Black”—with the intelligent and selective use of race and ethnicity as crucial factors in criminal investigation.  Some critics, the truly disingenuous, use the language of “profiling” to denounce the disparate effects of criminal-justice operations.  If black people are imprisoned at four or five times their presence in the overall population, this must be entirely the result of selective racial victimization.

Using these careless definitions, profiling has become a codeword for all manner of racial inequities in law enforcement.  Responding to these concerns, the Justice Department has now issued guidelines prohibiting federal agents from using race or ethnicity in routine investigations, though they may do so in cases involving terrorism and threats to national security.  This last point remains controversial, and the issue should be a major item in the 2004 Democratic platform.

As I said, however, I am unable to write that column.  What happened was this: In looking for background on profiling, I ordered a copy of the latest Almanac of American Politics.  Because of a mix-up at Amazon.com, though, I was accidentally sent a copy from an alternate world, where the current of reality diverged from our own.  Just out of curiosity, anyway, I now present the discussion that the alternative Almanac offers on the profiling issue.

“Now that ethnic profiling has become the decisive political theme it has, it is difficult to recall what a fringe issue this was before the epoch-making events of September 2001.  Though the Septembergate story has been told often enough, we must still be startled at the astonishingly bigoted behavior of the administration and the federal justice agencies.  Their official rationale was this: The FBI and CIA had come to believe that Islamic terrorists were planning to use aircraft in a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil; that some of their militants were already in the United States; and that they had received training in flying large airliners.  Putting two and two together, federal agencies decided that Middle Eastern terrorists planned to crash several hijacked airliners into major buildings, including the World Trade Center, the Capitol, and the Pentagon.  Responding to this far-fetched notion, the FBI searched the records of U.S. flight schools to find Arab or Middle Eastern men who had received training in the previous two or three years and placed these individuals under surveillance.  Airports were given strict instructions to search anyone on the official watch-list and to look especially for edged weapons.  On September 10, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of 20 Arab men, chiefly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

“Initially, the media paid polite attention to the news, but, over the following weeks, interest gave way to derision.  On the comedy programs, Leno and Letterman ridiculed the idea of these ‘losers’—who could not even afford real weapons—trying to hijack an airliner, let alone knowing what to do with it once they had done so.  Saturday Night Live reconstructed the event in an hilarious sketch, with shrieking turbaned Arabs running into cockpits, armed with tiny plastic scissors.  Hundreds of thousands signed a humorous e-mail petition circulated nationwide, declaring support for anyone prepared to blow up the Pentagon.  And, as all the experts made clear, even if an airliner succeeded in approaching the World Trade Center, an impact would have had no effect whatever on the building’s structural soundness.

“But humor soon turned to fury, as financial and corporate scandals erupted and the public came to suspect the cynical agenda motivating the persecution of the hapless Arab suspects.  In an ominous sign for the administration, the 1998 movie Wag the Dog became a huge video-rental hit, reminding audiences of how a fictional president used mythical foreign conspiracies as a means of distracting attention from his own scandalous misdeeds.  The perception that charges had been trumped-up was confirmed when millions watched Larry King’s interview with Mohammed Atta, following his release on bail.  At first hand, the audience saw that such a gentle, pious soul could never be a terrorist.

“Meanwhile, congressional investigators focused on the blatant and unapologetic uses of ethnic profiling by the FBI and CIA.  In blatantly discriminatory terms, agents were told to watch for ‘Arab and Middle Eastern’ men attending flight schools; they were told to exercise surveillance over ‘Arabs’ boarding planes in groups and even to prevent them from boarding.  Some harrowing documents told agents to seek out ‘radical Muslim’ extremists, confirming charges of religious bigotry.  When former President Clinton spoke of the naked discrimination displayed in the arrest of the September 10 suspects, he remarked  that ‘Freedom itself was attacked that morning, and freedom will be defended.’  Finding so many smoking guns, liberal and left-wing campaigns succeeded in forcing the resignations of John Ashcroft and CIA?Director George Tenet.  Activists also used the September 10 scandal to raise public consciousness of bias in the justice system, and sweeping legislation prohibited all use of racial or ethnic data in criminal investigation.  Issues of bias and discrimination profoundly damaged the Republicans in the 2002 midterm elections, which left George W. Bush a lame duck facing likely impeachment.

“By bringing racial discrimination to the foreground of American political debate, September 10 had a truly incalculable effect on the nation’s public life.  It brought home to us once and for all that America holds no values higher than protecting ethnic minorities against an out-of-control justice system.”