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Questions about ethnicity not a violation of rights, says APSU prof

11/26/2001
November 26, 2001

In the coming weeks, the FBI will interview more than 5,000 young males, mostly from Islamic countries, as part of a nationwide hunt for foreign-based terrorists. The plan has raised new questions about an all-too-familiar practice. Are the interviews the latest example of racial profiling?

Associate professor of philosophy Dr. Mark Michael says no. Michael, who teaches courses in social and political philosophy and history and theory of ethics at Austin Peay, says asking questions based on race or ethnicity is not a violation of moral rights and is morally justifiable considering the magnitude of the Sept. 11 attacks. "The general principle is that rights cannot be overridden by concerns about the good of society," he says. "But asking questions of people does not violate their rights."

Still, says Michael, a policy's failure to violate individual rights doesn't mean it is wise or consistent with other moral values. "Racial or ethnic profiling to interdict drug trafficking or transport, for example, doesn't violate anyone's rights," he says, "but that doesn't mean it isn't wrong. In fact, I would argue that it is unjustified because of the relative lack of intrinsic harm caused by these activities."

The magnitude of the original crime of Sept. 11, on the other hand, along with the potential for further serious harms brought about by terrorism, appears to warrant measures that would not be justified in other circumstances, he adds.

Michael says the interviews are unlikely to create anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., provided they are conducted openly. "The important thing is for the interviews not to be carried out in secret. The conclusions and results should be available to the press and, most importantly, they must relate to nothing other than terrorism."

This shouldn't be "a fishing expedition" for any information, he adds, even concerning criminal activities, unless those activities are directly related to the terrorism issue.

"I think if these conditions are met, it will not produce hostility toward Muslims or within the Muslim community toward the federal government and the United States, as long as the need for such questioning can be communicated effectively to that community," says Michael.