Dan Fanelli, Racial Profiling, and Whitewashing Terrorism: How Racial Fictions Become Racial Realities

It was only a matter of time.

Shortly after Faisal Shahzad was indicted on charges for the foiled Times Square car bombing, Florida GOP primary congressional candidate, Dan Fanelli, publicly endorsed racial profiling to combat terrorism. Fanelli released two campaign messages at his website entitled “Simple Facts” and “Simple Facts II.” (These advertisements are also available at “Simple Facts” and “Simple Facts II”).

While Fanelli’s concern for safety from terrorism may be a legitimate one, his solution is nothing short of racial tyranny, or what Tim Wise labels “The Tyranny of Common Sense” ( “The Tyranny of Common Sense: The Faulty Logic of ‘Terrorist’ Profiling.” Pp. 128-132 In Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflection from an Angry White Male, Tim Wise, (Ed.), Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, [2005] 2008. “The Tyranny of Common Sense: The Faulty Logic of ‘Terrorist’ Profiling.” Pp. 128-132 In Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflection from an Angry White Male, edited by Tim Wise. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.. Fanelli suggests that terrorists have a profile, and it is only common sense that this profile be targeted. In these recent ads, the line between “Arab-looking” men and terrorists is blurred, and Fanelli leads his constituency to believe these two are one in the same. All the while, Fanelli symbolizes white heroism and righteousness as he vows to protect “America” from Arab-looking men flying planes into buildings. His solution: Stop political correctness, end the invasion of privacy (e.g. supposedly unfair screening processes), and racially profile those who look like terrorists.

This, however, begs a fundamental question: What does a terrorist look like? According to these ads, they are dark-skinned, Turban-wearing, Arab-looking men who look similar to Shahzad or the 19 al-Qaeda members that committed the atrocities of 9/11. For Fanelli, these acts of a few individuals are justifiable grounds to profile a group that comprises millions of people. According to Fanelli, it’s just common sense. However, his common sense is nothing short of a gross overgeneralization that unjustly targets innocent people.

Racial profiling not only targets innocent people, but it fails as an effective counterterrorism tactic. Despite the fact that terrorists come in many different shades, Fanelli casts a picture that relies upon one-dimensional anti-Arab stereotypes. Even the al-Qaeda network, which Fanelli alludes to with a Twin Towers reference, is a global network comprised of decentralized terrorist cells (Howard, Russell and Reid Sawyer. Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment, Readings and Interpretations (2nd Edition). Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill, 2006.). Its vast presence transcends boundaries of racial identifiers such as skin tone and physical appearance and ethnic identifiers such as language or “Arab-sounding” names. In short, racial profiling is based on ill logic, and it is not a reliable tactic.

Though Fanelli suggests that it will enhance safety, racial profiling could have the reverse effect as intended.  With attention diverted to “Arab-looking” men, “closet terrorists” who don’t fit the profile might be overlooked. For example, consider the most recent successful terrorist act on American soil. This atrocity was committed by Joseph Andrew Stack, a software engineer enraged over U.S. tax policies and the federal government in general. His rage drove him to crash a plane into Austin’s IRS building this past February.

Ironically, in one ad Fanelli jokingly says that if “good-looking, ripped guy[s] without much hair” were hijacking planes and flying them into buildings, then he’d have no problem being profiled. Did I mention that Stack was an older white man without much hair, and as Jon Stewart satirically points out, looks striking similar to Fanelli? However, Fanelli does not seriously suggest that white men ought to be racially profiled. And virtually no other public figures make this suggestion either.

But why? It certainly is not because there’s been a shortage of isolated terrorist acts committed by white men. Other atrocities in recent history include terrorist acts committed by Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine, and most other school shootings. And unfortunately, this list goes on. Despite these examples, Fanelli incessantly suggests racially profiling “Arab-looking” men is the answer to preventing terrorism.

In the short run Fanelli’s scapegoating tactics may get him elected, but in the long run they have much larger implications. These ads operate as a narrative that reinforces what Joe Feagin labels the dominant white racial frame (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing, New York: Routledge, 2010). This frame contrasts a positive orientation of whites with a negative orientation with racial “Others,” and it helps whites (and others) process their everyday racial world. Through narrative, Fanelli’s ads legitimize a particular type of information that perpetuates racial oppression.

Fanelli discourages his constituency to critically think about terrorism and the limits of racial profiling. He does this by including the atrocities of 9/11 that were committed by “Arab-looking” men and excluding examples that counter his narrative. Through the evocation of anti-Arab resentment and fear of terrorism, Fanelli’s ads encourage audiences to ignore inconvenient facts of recent racial history and selectively remember others. This, in turn, legitimizes negative Arab stereotypes and problematizes an entire group of people.

All the while, these ads reinforce “sincere fictions of the white self” by legitimizing romanticized stereotypes of white heroism and innocence (Feagin, Joe, Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur, White Racism: The Basics (2nd), New York: Routledge, 2001). These stereotypes are reinforced when Fanelli self-proclaims his heroism by vowing to protect “America” from terrorists and when the other unnamed white man is casted as an innocent bystander, subjected to intrusive safety screening processes. Consequently, these ads not only scapegoat one group, but they exonerate and glorify another, particularly whites.

For those who care about living in a racially just world, Fanelli’s ads pose a serious problem. Their effectiveness depends upon many whites, and others, to adopt the dominant white racial frame. In doing this, Fanelli’s message persuades many to live in what Charles Mills calls a “racial fantasyland” (The Racial Contract, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997). And if people believe in such a racial fantasyland as though it were real, recognition of past and present racial realities remain out of reach.

    ~Kasey Henricks, Master’s Student, Sociology Department, Loyola University Chicago