Profiling is a tool used by law enforcement agencies “to catch the bad guys,” as they like to tell us. I don’t know how useful profiling is, but from first-hand experience I do know that it is an incredibly easy way to make mistakes and target innocent people.
I started visiting my younger sister in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. At that time, having longish hair, a beard, and a mustache was in style for men in Europe, as well as America.
The first hint of future trouble should have been what happened with my identification card in Italy. When I went to renew the card, I took the required passport-style photos with my expiring card to the local municipal office. I groaned to myself when I saw who the official was: a self-impressed nobody who got his job the old-fashioned way – through nepotism – and who enjoyed lording it over those he considered inferior.
“Rino” scrutinized the photo on the ID card and the newer photos that I handed him. Mind you, he had known me for years; his older brother and I went through all of elementary school together.
“This doesn’t look like you.”
“Who does it look like? Serpico?” I smirked. The Al Pacino movie was fresh on my mind.
My insolence annoyed Rino, and he insisted that I needed to be re-photographed and to present the new pictures if he was to issue a card. I suppose he expected me to shave off my beard and cut my hair, too. I was livid. Not only had I walked the two kilometers from my house, money was tight because I had no job.
So I resorted to my own connections: I called my cousin’s husband, a brigadiere in the carabinieri (a type of police force). The brigadiere came by my house that evening, looked at the photos, and declared Rino a fool. By lunchtime the next day, I had my renewed ID card.
A couple of months later, I arrived at JFK airport in New York on an Alitalia flight. At the passport-control booth, the agent took one look at me and then checked all of the pages of my Italian passport. The next thing I knew, I was being escorted to a holding area behind closed doors.
Two suited men with badges questioned – no, interrogated – me, first in English and then in various languages, none of which I understood. I kept saying, “Sono italiano. Non capisco” (I’m Italian. I don’t understand). The more I repeated it, the louder they babbled, as if that would drill those strange languages into my head.
I was getting very scared, which makes my slur more pronounced. I tried to tell them to find my sister, who waited for me in the reception area. I was getting nowhere. One of the men said something about “terrorist,” which is so close to the Italian word that I understood. I turned to ice.
A female agent happened to pass by as I cried out that I was no terrorist. She understood Italian. She said something to the male agents and they stepped back. The woman was calm and patient. She asked me my name, where I had flown from, and the purpose of my trip. She looked over my passport and my flight documents. Then she asked me to wait a little longer. The woman spoke in a low but forceful voice to her colleagues, and they all hurried away. The minutes ticked by; I worried about my sister, who had no way of knowing what was happening.
Finally, the female agent returned, apologized profusely, and explained that I resembled a Middle Eastern man on their watch list. Somehow, I found the courage to ask if he, too, was handicapped. She had no answer, but she personally took me to the baggage area, helped me find my suitcase, and sent me off to my sister. An hour and a half had passed since my plane landed.
The experience left me shaken. Even now, decades later, I make it a point to fly back to the U.S. with someone who is fluent in English, preferably my wife. So many times a passport-control agent starts to question me in Spanish. My wife always jumps in to say that I don’t speak Spanish, and that I’m an Italian national with legal residence in the U.S. Given all that, I don’t know how anyone would think that I’m trying to sneak into the U.S. from a Latin American country. I do have dark hair and brown eyes, so I must tick off some boxes on yet another profile checklist.
I understand that it is a dangerous, thankless job to keep the populace safe. But the robotic profiling, the refusal to listen respectfully and engage in a non-confrontational manner, the intimidation and sometimes violence – there has to be a more humane way to protect and serve the public.