IV. A Critical Race Analysis of Profiling Prior to September 11th

Prior to September 11th, the news media and society presumed that perpetrators who were racially identified (or “racialized”) as white were inherently good, and that something bad had happened to cause them to do wrong. The media asked: Was there bad parenting? Was he involved with the wrong crowd? Was he using medication that may have contributed to his behavior? In contrast, for those racialized as being of African descent, the news media and society presumed that these individuals were generally bad, ignoring the possibility of mitigating factors when examining negative behavior. Further, for those who have olive-colored complexions and are of Middle Eastern ancestry, before September 11th, the news media and society stereotyped them in one of two ways: either negatively, as possible Middle Eastern terrorists and religious fanatics, or positively, as royal family members or oil millionaires.

An illustrative example is that of Zacarius Moussaoui, the only person allegedly linked to the September 11th attacks who was apprehended prior to the execution of the attacks. Moussaoui is a French citizen of Moroccan ethnicity. He probably was racially profiled because of his African appearance. This racial profiling may help explain why he was the only person detained in advance of September 11th. He was detained on an immigration violation in August of 2001, and it has been reported that he was apprehended because he wanted to learn how to fly jetliners without learning to land. Moussaoui first attended flight school in Norman, Oklahoma; the instructors told him that he had no aptitude for flying. In Oklahoma, he was described as abrupt and argumentative, and he refused to pay the full $4,995 fee in advance, instead paying $2,500 in cash. He then moved on to the Pan American Flight school in Minnesota where he spent time on a flight simulator for a Boeing 747. Believing that this training might be used in a hijacking, an official at the flight academy tipped off the FBI in advance. The employees at the flight school felt that the FBI was slow to respond. After four to six telephone calls failed to produce an agent willing to help, the caller felt compelled to warn that a Boeing 747 could be used as a bomb.

Moussaoui was arrested on August 16, 2001 for an immigration violation. The Washington Post described why the Minnesota flight school was suspicious of Moussaoui--Moussaoui paid the school's $6,300 fee in cash, he was woefully lacking in flight skills, and he was evasive and belligerent when asked about his background. In one example, when an employee noted Moussaoui's place of birth and greeted him in French, Moussaoui refused to respond, stating that he was from the Middle East rather than France. Moussaoui wanted to fly a 747 but had little experience in doing so. The news media also reported that he only wanted to learn to steer an aircraft--not learn to take off or land. However, according to his flight instructor, Clancy Prevost, Moussaoui never said any of these things. According to Prevost, he became suspicious when Moussaoui “flushed” when asked whether he was a Muslim.

Even more fascinating than Moussaoui's specific case, is the information surrounding the nineteen hijackers responsible for the September 11th attacks. Specifically, more than sufficient grounds existed to believe that the hijackers were planning to use their flight training for terrorist activities, unrelated to the hijackers' ethnic background. The nineteen hijackers were alleged, undercover sleeper agents, attempting to blend into American society until September 11, 2001. However, they got into trouble while living in the United States; for example, both Mohamed Atta and Marwan Yusef Mohammed al-Shehhi were thrown out of Jones Flying Service School for unprofessional behavior and instructors complained about their attitude.

For Moussaoui, there was no countervailing positive stereotype to overcome his blackness. The media negatively stereotyped people of African descent as bad actors. This dynamic made it easy for those who encountered Moussaoui to suspect him of wrongdoing. His bad attitude was enough for people to be suspicious that he was a possible terrorist. Although not expressly a part of the media's coverage, one might wonder whether Moussaoui's paying cash for his flying lessons raised questions in the minds of the flight school as to the source of his funding. In contrast, the nineteen hijackers benefited from the “oil millionaire” stereotype and, thus, their source of funds was not questioned. This contrast shows why racial profiling is ineffective--it allowed detainment of one possible culprit who seemed to be only tangentially involved in the hijacking, while nineteen key players were able to escape detection and cause considerable harm.