There's a big difference between looking suspicious and acting suspiciously. And it is a distinction that law enforcement officials need to make. Profiling people because of appearances may seem like a shortcut to safety, but it's also a shortcut to a loss of civil liberties.

The issue of profiling is afoot again due to news that the Justice Department is mulling the option of allowing the FBI to investigate American citizens without any evidence of wrongdoing on their part. The move is being made to target Muslims, Arabs and others who belong to similar ethnic groups, but the "Big Brother" attitude could easily spill over into the lives of other Americans.

That's not paranoia. It's a concern based on the past performance of law enforcement.

It would be a great irony if a nation dedicated to safeguarding freedoms — the United States — clamped down on freedom out of some wrongheaded notion of preserving it. The thought calls to mind the quote from the Vietnam War: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

The new policy would go into effect at the end of the Bush administration. And the fact the Bush administration has been pummeled for trampling on privacy rights in the guise of outing terrorists is not lost on civil libertarians. In fact, many convictions have been overturned in the past because defendants were able to show they were targeted simply because of race.

Racial profiling has an ugly history in the United States, while fighting it has produced some key — even monumental — triumphs for equal protection.

The old argument that people who are innocent have nothing to hide is usually voiced by people who have never been the victims of profiling.

In short, profiling by race does not lead to abuses, it is an abuse in itself. And giving the FBI more freedom to overstep privacy rights is a path the country has flirted with in the past and found to be wanting.

These latest guidelines for profiling are the same old ploy of claiming to preserve cherished freedoms by letting security issues trump them.