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GSN’s question elicits a controversial answer from Secretary Napolitano

Goodwin questions
Napolitano at
NYU Law School

During a question-and-answer session following her speech at NYU Law School on June 7, a question posed by this writer, GSN’s editor-in-chief, to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano seems to have kicked up a mini-brouhaha in the national media over the logic – or illogic – of U.S. counter-terrorism officials paying extra attention to Muslim men under the age of 35 when they screen for potential terrorists.

At the law school speech, sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice, listening to Napolitano’s prepared remarks, I was struck by one passage and stood up during the Q&A session to pose one question, which was captured on video and posted on YouTube:

“You said earlier in your remarks that there's no single portrait of a would-be terrorist, and that the administration has no interest in profiling, and that not only are those policies -- the profiling policies -- illegal, but they are also ineffective,” I noted, in a room full of law students, faculty members and law school administrators. “Common sense tells me that in most of the cases since 9-11 that we've made arrests, it wouldn't be profiling to discover that most of the suspects or the convicted parties have been men, typically under 30 or under 35, often Muslim.”

(Of course, I am sensitive enough to the political winds that have been blowing in the U.S. since 9/11, so I covered myself with a caveat.)

“Not to say that all men under 35 who are Muslim are suspect -- not at all,” I continued, “but I guess my question is, why wouldn't the department focus more of its attention on that category of individual who's turned up most often as the suspect?”

Napolitano didn’t hesitate before answering.

“Well, because you're not using good logic there,” she responded. “You've got to use actual intelligence that you receive. And so you might, you know -- all you've given me is kind of status. You haven't given me a technique, a tactic, a behavior, something that would suggest that somebody is not -- not a Muslim, but is Islamist, and is actually -- has moved into the category of a violent extremist.”

“Now, we have ways to make, you know, some of those cuts,” Napolitano continued, in what began to sound like a rambling answer, “and they involve the intel that comes in, the analysis that goes on.”

“For example, we -- oftentimes for travelers entering the United States, we won't do a -- what's called a secondary inspection just because they're a 35-year-old male who appears to be Muslim, whatever that means,” she continued, clearly not wanting to focus any particular investigative attention on any particular demographic group. “But we know from intelligence that if they have a certain travel pattern over a certain period of time, that that should cause us to ask some more significant questions than if they don't. And that's what secondary is all about.”

“So, we continue to focus ourselves and to focus those with whom we work and those we train not on status issues but on actual behaviors, tactics, and techniques that we can associate from intelligence that we know or things we have learned or other countries have learned that could translate into possible criminal or terrorist activity.”

I sensed that it had been a pretty good Q&A, and that I had drawn out the DHS secretary a bit more than usual, but I didn’t give our exchange any more thought until this past weekend, when I saw the following headline on the Website of the organization Media Matters:

“Right-Wing Media Attack Sec. Napolitano For Advocating Effective Screening Methods Instead Of Profiling Muslims”

On the Media Matters site, more than 40 commenters debated whether DHS was using good commonsense by not focusing extra attention on young, Muslim males.

TheBlaze, another Website, attracted 661 comments -- mostly critical of the DHS secretary -- with its headline, "Janet Napolitano: Using Common Sense and Concentrating Terrorist Screening Efforts on Muslim Men Under 35 Is Not Good Logic," and its link to video, shot by C-SPAN, of my complete question and Napolitano's complete answer.

The same question, from a different camera angle, was posted on YouTube.

Fox Nation jumped in with its own critical headline: "Napolitano Muslim Statement Takes the Cake."

I waded through hundreds of the comments and found the familiar duel between the right (which was far more outspoken on this particular episode) and the left.

On the right, Napolitano’s illogic seemed undeniable:

“How is it if a bank is robbed by a chubby guy in a red suit we tend to only look for people who are chubby wearing a red suit but can’t seem to grasp the same concept of looking for those who fit the 'perp’s' description when it comes to boarding an airplane?” asked one irritated commenter.

On another site, I found an equally adamant rejoinder from the left:

“Screening all young Muslim men, when more than 99% of them won't ever be a threat for terrorism, is a waste of time, energy, money and effort,” wrote the commenter. “It doesn't make sense to target them, contrary to the kneejerk reactions of right wingers.”

Of course, this difficult question -- "Is profiling effective, or is it discriminatory and ineffective?" -- has been debated since 9/11, but it is interesting to see that it still represents a “hot button” for many in our society.


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