Friday, June 25, 2004

Profiling -- Right or Wrong?

I was 5 years old in 1950, a fairly recent immigrant to Canada courtesy of my parents' desire to get away from post-World War II Germany. I was playing outside the dilapidated house where my family had a tiny apartment when a couple of older kids came over and started taunting me, calling me a "DP" and throwing rocks at me. A rock hit me in the temple and I fell to the ground.

I survived. The wound healed. The lessons I learned that day also survived. What is more important to me today than the fact that I could have been killed, is what I learned from my mother as she cleaned my wound and comforted me. She tried to make sense of the attack for me. Condensed, her explanation went something like this: "Two types of people might behave like this. Some people are simply idiots and behave irrationally and unpredictably, regardless of the circumstance. Other peoples' actions are reactive, largely dictated by their own experiences or what they have been taught. There is a lot of understandable anti-German sentiment in Canada. There was a major war not long ago and many Canadians were killed at the hands of Germans. Before you hate anyone for their actions, try to understand why they behave as they do."

My mother’s remarks to me were in German, in "mom-speak" geared to a five-year-old, but I believe that I have accurately reflected above what she meant.

In 1960 or so, my family moved to another town and I attended a new high school. As I walked the halls every day, I frequently noticed an older girl looking at me with a hatred that was impossible for me to grasp at the time. I had never met her, had never said a word to her, didn't know anything about her. I asked a mutual acquaintance what her problem was with me. He told me that she was Jewish and that she thought I looked like a Nazi officer. I was tall and blond. I fit the profile.

Did I hate the girl in return? No. I tried to understand why she felt as she did. I even imagined that she might have lost a family member during the war and that her hate was caused by the resulting anger and frustration. Although I was born after the war, had no involvement in the war and was the child of pacifists, I could nevertheless empathize. I would have liked to become friends with the girl, to understand what was going on in her mind. Unfortunately, that never happened.

As the years passed, incidents like these decreased. The last time I can remember being called a Nazi was in 1967, twenty-two years after the end of the war. I had a new business and had just fired a young employee who had been stealing from me. His father appeared the next day and in a rage called me a "Nazi bastard," going on at length about how he had fought in the war to eradicate people like me. As I dispassionately watched him sputter and froth, I realized that he fit the first part of my mother's 1950 description, an idiot who behaved irrationally regardless of the circumstance. I stood quietly, smiling at the man, letting him rant until he ran out of spittle and venom. When he realized that he wasn't going to get a reaction, he slunk away.

My family and hundreds of thousands of other German immigrants were accepted into Canada and were able to live peaceful, productive lives. Overwhelmingly, Canadians were generous, supportive, kind.

More recently, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have entered Canada and the United States. Many of them have settled in and are doing their best to live quiet, uneventful lives, making a secure future for themselves and their children. They are not terrorists. Because terrorists these days are nearly universally radical Muslims, their peers, who want nothing more than to be left alone, are often under suspicion. Is that right and proper?

After the events of September 11, 2001, we have been hearing a lot of talk about profiling. Our security organizations appear to go out of their way to avoid concentrating on one racial or religious profile over another. A white grandmother may be chosen for a full-body search while someone looking "mid-eastern" might pass a checkpoint unchallenged. We hear a lot of rhetoric about how profiling is bad, unfair, uncivilized. Still, no white grandmother I have heard of has been a terrorist in recent times, while swarthy young men have killed thousands in numerous terrorist acts world-wide in the last several years.

What do we do about this? I think anyone who fits the terrorist profile should expect to experience a delay or two now and again. Don't whine about it. Take one for the team. When others who look just like you stop blowing things up, killing innocent people, then you will no longer fall under scrutiny and be inconvenienced. In the meantime, speed things up by condemning terrorist acts and those who commit them.

Let’s all work towards a saner world together. Blowing up people solves nothing, it merely perpetuates ancient hatreds for yet another generation.

It's time to stop this nonsense.


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  2. I fully see what you're talking about. It is sickening how certain races and religions are picked out of the crowd just because of the way the look. People need to realize that anyone can commit a crime, regardless of how they look or act. I think it is time that America should just grow up and realize that if we don't stop fighting and start working together then we might not be here much longer. Thank you for broaching this sometimes touchy subject.

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  6. Whoa sorry about that, it kept saying there was an error posting so I didn't think it posted it. My fault.

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  8. Sorry I was having problems posting I keep getting error messages when I try to post a comment. Sorry about the multiple comments. And it only lets me post as anonymous, I think.

  9. Thanks, Mr. Brad. Sometimes I just want to stop the world and get off. That lasts a few seconds and then I realize that if all of us don't do our bit to make things better, the world will get worse and worse and it will be even harder to change things for the better.

  10. Your profiling blog is right on the money. I grew up in Windsor and although I was luckily borderline too young to get into the big war, I was able to get a job at Ford's assembly plant, when I was only sixteen. Excuse the lengthy preamble, but it relates to your blog which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was in this industrial setting a constant reference to one's background, usually used by dimwits who considered their natural inclination to stereotype workers whose European origins were obvious in their foreign names, a destructive practise. Some DPs as they were termed, even changed their ethnic names to avoid this deleterious habit. Italians were called wops and dagos, and there was a fistful of Polacks, and some germans who were krauts. Hungarians were Honkies.
    Your article brought back those unpleasant memories, but things like this never disappear. Thanks again for your thoughtful insights.