Terrorism has again raised the disputed issue of racial profiling. Specifically, should we be especially wary of young men who appear to be Muslim?
First, at risk of sounding “nice,” I have the strong impression that Muslim countries normally have low rates of violent crime. So do most homogeneous populations with strong moral and civic traditions: Japan, Finland, North Dakota.
Even when most terrorist acts are committed by Muslims within Western counties, these violent ones are still a tiny fraction of the total number. Just enough to be unnerving. Naturally the majority of Muslims among us don’t like, and often resent, being treated with suspicion.
Here I won’t worry about sounding nice. That’s just tough. I speak from experience.
In the late Sixties, a series of really horrible murders occurred in my hometown, Ypsilanti, Michigan. The victims were young white coeds at my college, Eastern Michigan University, several of whom were last seen hitchhiking. There were few other clues. The police suspected that the killer was a young white man. Like me.
Over two years, about a half dozen girls were tortured and killed. The entire county lived in indescribable terror, which grew even more intense every time another mutilated body was found. All of us young white men were watched nervously. We even watched each other nervously. The actual killer, whoever he was, had made us all suspects.
I keenly felt the gaze of suspicious eyes. I felt almost guilty because strangers I encountered might think I was guilty. A strange feeling, and not a pleasant one; but I couldn’t complain. After all, they were only wondering the same thing about me that I was wondering about other white males of my age.
Finally, in August 1969, the police arrested the culprit, John Norman Collins, who had carelessly left incriminating evidence by the body of his last victim, just a few blocks from my own apartment. He’d killed her in the basement of his own uncle’s home. The uncle was a policeman who’d left him the keys while he went on vacation.
Needless to say, perhaps, Collins was a young white male. A friend of mine knew him well. He described him as a handsome, athletic guy, but nasty and truly creepy. Collins also had a sinister sidekick, who vanished after Collins was nabbed. My friend was all but certain the sidekick had been an accomplice in the murders, but that was never proved. Collins took the rap alone and was sentenced to life in prison.
The arrest made national news, briefly, and lifted a great burden of fear from Ypsilanti. Life went back to normal and it was okay to be a young white man again. A woman I worked with told me she thought it was me when she saw Collins’s picture in the papers; she’d been relieved when she saw me in person the next day. For the first time in many months I felt really innocent.
Collins might have gotten longer national attention, but he was upstaged by an even more sensational killer that same week: Charles Manson.
If just one criminal can bring suspicion on so many others, Muslims in the West had better be careful. Not because Muslims are disposed to violence in ordinary circumstances, but because too many of them are so disposed at the moment. What makes this painful, and ironic, is that our own government’s foreign policy has provoked hatreds that didn’t use to exist but which now make it rational for Westerners to regard Muslims with anxiety.
This is prudence, not racial discrimination. Its purpose is defensive, not punitive. If anyone should be punished besides the terrorists, it’s the U.S. officials who give the terrorists a cause. But of course these are generally the same politicians who vociferate most furiously against terrorism. Though I don’t blame ordinary Westerners who fear Muslims, I don’t blame the Muslims who are seething at this. But that’s life.
John Norman Collins wasn’t proof that all young white men were dangerous in 1969. But his profile was all we had to go on, and maybe some women are still alive today because they followed their suspicions then. It’s silly to consider terrorism a permanent feature of Islam. But as long as a few Muslims in our part of the world are terrorists, a similar caution is in order.