Boston—Most Americans expect a terrorist attack on the United States in the next few months and support the screening of people who look “Middle Eastern” at airports and train stations, a poll showed on Tuesday.
The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said 62 percent of Americans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that terrorists would strike the nation in the next few months while 37 percent were “not too worried” or “not worried at all.”
The poll of 1,080 voters, conducted August 17-23, comes as many Americans are jittery after British authorities foiled a plot to blow up planes but is broadly in line with other surveys on expectations for another attack since September 11.
By a 60 percent to 37 percent margin, respondents said authorities should single out people who look “Middle Eastern” for security screening at locations such as airports and train stations—a finding that drew sharp criticism by civil liberties groups.
“It’s an unfortunate by-product to the fear and hysteria we’re hearing in many quarters,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy organization.
“It’s one of those things that makes people think they are doing something to protect themselves when they’re not. They’re in fact producing more insecurity by alienating the very people whose help is necessary in the war on terrorism,” he said.
Quinnipiac’s director of polling, Maurice Carroll, said he was surprised by the apparent public support for racial profiling. “What’s the motivation there—is it bigotry, or is it fear or is it practicality?” he said.
Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union say racial profiling has been on the rise since the September 11 attacks. Arab and Muslim men are often profiled for investigation and Sikhs have frequently been mistakenly perceived as being of Middle Eastern origin.
The ACLU last week accused security officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport of racially profiling Muslims.
“You really need some indication of individualized concern before you target someone for closer examination,” said Dennis Parker, an ACLU director. “One of the reasons for the U.S. Constitution was to protect the rights of minorities.”
Muslim, Arab and South Asian passengers are being profiled by Homeland Security officers at Kennedy Airport, civil liberties groups said Wednesday, citing a New Jersey family that was detained and interrogated after a flight from Dubai last week.
The family, a mother and her 20-year-old twin daughters from Montclair, N.J., said they were plucked from the baggage area, held six hours without food or water by Customs and Border Protection agents and questioned about their views of Iraq.
Nahgam Alyaqoubi and her daughters, Arwa and Sumia Ibrahim, naturalized American citizens, said 200 other passengers of Arab, Muslim or South Asian backgrounds were detained on Aug. 15 in a roped-off area, days after the London bomb suspects were arrested.
The family joined officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups at a news conference in the Manhattan office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to condemn what they say has been an increase in racial profiling since the London plot was uncovered. They also criticized Rep. Peter King for what they said was profiling.
Arwa Ibrahim, who along with her sister is enrolled at Rutgers University, said they were born in Iraq and moved to the United States at age 5. She said the experience was disturbing because they were forced to sit on the floor without food or water and were treated rudely when they asked questions of the officers.
The ACLU and other rights groups said they planned to investigate this and several other complaints of profiling.
Lucille Cirillo, a supervisory Customs Border Protection officer in New York City, said the heightened alert after the London arrests means more passengers are scrutinized. She said the Orange Alert dictates that some flights get more attention.
Neither customs nor homeland security officers engage in racial profiling, she said. “But what I will say on the matter is our officers will scrutinize more closely individuals arriving from high-risk countries,” Cirillo said.
Katherine Metres Abbadi, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said recent comments from King were inflammatory.
“Why is Congressman King calling for a policy which has been tried and proven not to work and which has been disavowed by security experts?” she said.
King said he was speaking on the basis that the “next terrorist” will come from places like the Middle East or South Asia.
“First of all, it’s not ethnic or racial profiling,” King said Wednesday. “What I’m saying, though, is that screeners should have the right to ask additional questions of a person who belongs to a particular ethnic or religious group if members of that group have threatened the United States.”