In the chaotic minutes after two bombs tore through the crowd near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, racial discrimination turned a terror victim into a terror suspect.
As a shocked world watched, media reported that a young Saudi man had been apprehended.
He had been watching the race and was badly hurt by the first bomb. CBS News said a bystander saw him running and tackled him. People thought he looked “suspicious.”
While doctors treated him in hospital, his apartment was searched and his roommate interrogated. His name was endlessly tweeted. Media dubbed him the “Saudi suspect.”
The next day, authorities cleared him. Wrong place, wrong time, said CNN.
Yes, it was wrong. Racial profiling is wrong. And it’s also bad policing.
Research supports this. There is no evidence that racial profiling helps identify terrorists. What can be proven, is that profiling creates distrust and resentment among members of ethnic or religious communities. It leads them to believe they are unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
Public trust is critical to combating criminal activity. We all have a civic duty to report crime, but in practice, when trust is absent, people may fear the consequences of coming forward.
Hence my praise of how the RCMP handled the announcement of the arrest of two Muslim men allegedly connected to a plot to bomb a Toronto-New York train. The RCMP clearly invested care and thought in managing the impact of the news on Canada’s Muslim communities. As reported in this newspaper last week, this approach has been years in the making.
The RCMP went out of their way to credit a Toronto imam for information leading to the arrests, and invited community leaders to a private briefing before breaking the news. One leader, Muhammad Robert Heft, told the Canadian Press that the briefing sent a signal: police are not targeting Muslims.
It’s not clear all Canadian police understand the work needed to build trust. Facts can help. Paradoxically, one important set of facts requires the collection of racial data. It may sound discriminatory, but it’s actually the best way to ensure police are operating without racial bias.
Starting this summer, Ottawa will be the first major Canadian city to do just that. Ottawa police will start collecting statistics on the race of people involved in traffic stops. This approach owes much to the experience of the Kingston police force, the first in Canada to record racial information.
Collecting racial data can show whether racial profiling is taking place. Kingston police found that it was. In some instances, officers’ prejudices were getting in the way of the job. This enabled them to take corrective measures.
What’s more, Kingston police learned they need to be wary of the prejudices of people who report crimes. This is precisely what happened to the young man from Saudi Arabia. Wounded, scared, running for his life, a bystander accused him of wrongdoing because of how he looked.
Regardless of the fact that he was cleared (and to be fair, Boston law enforcement had no option but to question him once he was turned in), false news about the Saudi man’s alleged involvement continues to circulate on the internet and in social media. Because of racial discrimination, the name of an innocent man will forever be linked to this horrific, senseless act.
Some believe this kind of injustice is unavoidable. They argue that public security and human rights are often at odds, and that in some cases we may have to give up one to have the other.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission disagrees, and so does the Supreme Court of Canada. As Justices Iacobucci and Arbour wrote in a 2004 decision, “a response to terrorism within the rule of law preserves and enhances the cherished liberties that are essential to democracy.”
Our democratic values define us. In times of panic and confusion we must be at our most vigilant in protecting them.
David Langtry is acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
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