New York Times
September 26, 2001

In the Search for Suspects, Sensitivities About Profiling


New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer Jr. tried yesterday to reassure Muslims, Arabs and others that he would not sanction or condone racial profiling by the law enforcement agents who are searching for suspects in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But he also repeated a message that he has delivered in the last week to people who fear they will be singled out for harassment in the wake of the attacks because of their appearance or religious dress. With at least 300 people of Middle Eastern background wanted for questioning in the terror investigation, he said, people thought to resemble specific suspects could end up being stopped by a law enforcement officer and should try to be understanding.

"It is inevitable that a number of people who are innocent are going to be questioned," Mr. Farmer said in a telephone interview. "It's important that any abusive conduct be reported and that we have open channels of communication at a time like this."

The attorney general has made similar comments in recent public appearances and interviews before audiences of Sikh, Muslim and Arab Americans who are worried that they may become victims of hate crimes or discrimination. Mr. Farmer's effort to clarify his comments yesterday demonstrated just how strong reactions are to the profiling issue.

He was reacting to criticism after an article yesterday in The Star- Ledger of Newark, which said Mr. Farmer had all but conceded that investigators in the trade center case might engage in racial profiling.

Muslim leaders and civil rights activists reacted with predictable alarm.

Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, the religious leader of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, said he understood the article to say that Mr. Farmer supported the singling out of people of Middle Eastern appearance for investigation.

"This is about singling out the Middle Eastern person whether it is Arab or Muslim or Pakistani from the global human being," Mr. Chebli said. "If we do so, then everyone in an airport or a seaport or a train station or a subway will also consider that as official criticism of our Mideastern faces and dress."

The issue of racial profiling is especially charged in New Jersey, where state politics have been dominated by arguments over whether law enforcement officers randomly stopped and searched people solely because of race. A report released by Mr. Farmer last year concluded that racial profiling had become a routine part of state police operations.

Like other law enforcement officials, including those in the Justice Department in Washington, Mr. Farmer has said that all Americans should expect greater government surveillance of individuals and groups as the price to be paid for greater security in an age of terrorism. But he said racial profiling would not be used.

"It's not people being pulled over on the street or road at random simply because of how they look," he said. "It's different because investigators have specific information on specific people. And with so many people wanted, a lot of people are going to match the physical description of those folks."

Mr. Chebli said he understood the need for the investigation but pleaded for even-handedness. "If there are stops on the road or interviews at the airport, then deal with this person, male or female, in a gentle way," he said. "If that person is innocent and you don't find anything in the record, then say: `Thank you sir, thank you ma'am. We are doing this for your safety, not to harm your religion.' After all, let us work for peace."

Copyright 2001. New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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