The crisis in the Persian Gulf has left the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies with two distinct jobs. First, they must protect Arab-Americans from the racists who will try to use the crisis as an excuse to harass and harm others. Such protection can be a large task by itself, as the experiences of previous crises in the Middle East have shown.

In addition, however, authorities must keep informed on the possibility of terrorist attacks sponsored by certain regimes and organizations in the Middle East. Doing this job right involves asking some delicate questions, inquiries that by their very nature can easily give offense.Assigning FBI agents to tackle these two jobs simultaneously in individual interviews doesn't seem like the best approach, regardless of how polite the agents might be. Hello, just stopped by to make sure no racists are bothering you. Good, good. Oh, say - you're not a big fan of Saddam Hussein, are you?

The impression such an approach leaves is that the agent's initial questions concerning harassment were merely designed to serve as some sort of conversational icebreaker.

Authorities must be careful not to rely heavily on ethnic background in deciding whether someone might be involved in terrorism. That simply isn't appropriate.

Americans who cheer terrorist organizations and regimes in the Middle East, however, should not be surprised to discover that the FBI has at least some mild interest in them.

Being questioned by law enforcement officials can be an unpleasant experience, but sometimes certain questions are necessary. People must be careful about leveling charges of harassment and prejudice merely on the basis of these questions being asked.