The Case for Profiling
March 15, 2002 6:19 PM   Subscribe

The Case for Profiling 'As it happens, the suicide bombers who attacked us on Sept. 11 were young, Islamic, Arab and male. That is not a stereotype. That is a fact. And there is no hiding from it, as there is no hiding from the next al-Qaeda suicide bomber. He has to be found and stopped." From what can be read here, here, and in another Time article here , it would appear that profiling is a touch harder to do than this lightweight rant suggests. Whether one agrees with profiling or not, there seems little point in Time Magazine cheerleading it with an article that can only add to the high level of ignorance already surrounding this subject.
posted by RobertLoch (23 comments total)
Yes, but there is no evidence that it is those characteristics that caused them to carry out the attacks.

The guys who bombed the building in Oklahoma were white males. That is not a stereotype. That is a fact. What should be do about that, eh? prejudice
posted by Calebos at 7:03 PM on March 15, 2002

there seems little point in Time Magazine cheerleading it

Time isn't cheerleading. It's presenting an essay that states its author's point of view. I think Krauthammer's wrong, but I don't blame the magazine for publishing this article.
posted by diddlegnome at 7:06 PM on March 15, 2002

If my share an example from personal life:
It seems, for good or for worse, a certain crude type of profiling is already being practiced. A friend's brother went to a US consulate for a routine extension of his visa last month. It got rejected with the reason stated to be 'confidential'. US embassies abroad apparently use the word 'confidential' as an euphemism for 'National Security'. This guy was born in UAE (his father was a consultant who..well...travelled. his two other sons were born in London and Bangalore), lives in NY (moved there after sept 11) and has a beard. Since he is a Hindu, a senior marketing professional more at home pub crawling than discussing politics of any kind, one assumes it is the coincidences that made the embassy take the call it did.
posted by justlooking at 7:25 PM on March 15, 2002

So, "We won't extend your visa, and we also won't tell you why"? Marvelous. I feel safer already.
posted by diddlegnome at 7:34 PM on March 15, 2002

Oops. Sorry for the typo in the previous post. 'If my share' should read 'If I may'.

Also, while I think profiling is a bad idea overall, in the short term I dont blame an administration for using such tactics to try to protect its population. I feel, In the long term, such measures would scar a nation and would build deep divides. I do feel though implementations of security measures (like the example I quoted above or as this story of airport security shows) have a long way to go.
posted by justlooking at 7:46 PM on March 15, 2002

True, shoe bomber Richard Reid, while young and Islamic and male, was not Arab. No system will catch everyone. But our current system is designed to catch no one because we are spending 90% of our time scrutinizing people everyone knows are no threat.

Chucky boy claims that the current politically correct system is just designed to lull us into a false sense of security, and yet gives this example, which immediately contradicts a supposed established pattern of young Arab males, in the midst of arguing that we should only profile young Arab males ... which, let's face it, would only lull Chuck into a false sense security. What a jackass.

This is also a fact: Reid notwithstanding, there hasn't been a single legitimate instance that I know of where someone else has tried to blow up a plane since 9/11, Arab or otherwise. Correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by donkeyschlong at 8:25 PM on March 15, 2002

'Time isn't cheerleading.'

Let me rephrase - what is Time doing publishing such a poorly researched article, that contains literally no substance? If the guy actually bothered to present a decent argument then one might be more inclined to excuse his prejudice.

This is nothing more than an incitement to bigotry. I expect more from Time than that dribble. Or is Time trying to reposition itself, perhaps somewhere closer to The Sun, and I've just missed it?
posted by RobertLoch at 8:31 PM on March 15, 2002

It's not an article, it's an editorial. I disagree with Krauthammer 100%, and I do blame Time for publishing it. But editorials are a mainstay of the media, and ignorant editorials are extremely popular these days.
posted by jpoulos at 9:00 PM on March 15, 2002

If the guy actually bothered to present a decent argument then one might be more inclined to excuse his prejudice.

True. I saw enough columns like this in late September, when a lot of people weren't thinking too straight. You can't tell who a terrorist is by looks alone; maybe Mr. Krauthammer has some sort of X-ray vision into the soul that he could lease out to the airport security people.

Or maybe he's just a crackpot.
posted by diddlegnome at 9:02 PM on March 15, 2002

I really am astonished for a couple of reasons: that he's taking the time to write something like this now, six months later, when everyone's become more acclimated to and, I'd like to think, levelheaded about the whole thing; and that Time published it. I hope someone articulate (unlike myself) takes the time to write in with some sort of rebuttal.
posted by donkeyschlong at 9:20 PM on March 15, 2002

Imagine that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had not been acting alone but had instead been part of a vast right-wing, antigovernment, terrorist militia with an ideology, a network and a commitment to carrying out attacks throughout America.

Okay, the militia movement isn't vast.

Would there have been any objection to singling out young white men for special scrutiny at airports and other public places?

Is there any precedent, in any democracy, of the majority being singled out for harassment while minorities are spared? I'm sure there must be one somewhere, but I'm drawing a blank.
posted by electro at 9:22 PM on March 15, 2002

I am not terribly surprised at Krauthammer's position. That's how he always seems to write to me. I guess once you reach a certain position in the columnist universe, you get a carte blanche.

Having said that and not to defend how he writes: I think the strong reaction that 'profiling' is eliciting here, could be due its association with racism and its practice in certain police departments.

But if you think about it, profiling is far simpler to implement than an infrastructure that can actually rigorously screen every applicant. Considering the number of people that apply for a visa in any US consulate every day and the no of people who get in every day into this country, anything more sophisticated would probably require a drastic overhaul of the system. Governments are usually not geared to work that fast.

It is true that "there hasn't been a single legitimate instance .... where someone else has tried to blow up a plane since 9/11". It is entirely possible that there wont be another terrorist attempt in the next so many years. But you can not work on the assumption that there won't be any more attempts (using aeroplanes or otherwise) and if the state doesnt take measures, it has only itself to blame.

Most 20th century governments havent really figured out how to deal with terrorism day in and day out. As they get exposed to it, their efforts and security measures get more and more sophisticated. Initial attempts are clumsy and not terribly effective. They learn with time.

I went vacationing to Nepal from India some months after the Air India flight from Kathmandu got hijacked to Afghanistan. They checked my luggage 4 times and among other things, refused to allow a kid to take his battery operated game to the plane. The policemen manning the security were simple people and were simply trying to do their best. It was also highly unlikely that if at all another Air India flight was to get hijacked, it would get hijacked on the same route within a few months. I think the first reaction of most states to any new kind of terrorism is kneejerk.

I also think government bureacracies tend to be process oriented and are usually not very good with innovation. With time, they slowly and incrementally improve the system. Its a big, clumsy beast. Ideological positions are all very good. But it is sometimes hard to formulate practical implementable solutions if you take an ideological position. I think profiling is ugly and a kneejerk reaction. But it is also true that you are fighting a war with Al Quaida. They dont appear to be peace loving people. The core seems to be predominantly Arab. Do you have a better idea?
posted by justlooking at 9:59 PM on March 15, 2002

I doubt many people could pick out an "Arab", much less a "muslim" just by looks. Basicaly everyone who isn't bright white, dark black, or chinese... like 70% of the worlds population.

The second obvious problem is that using racial profiling would create an obvious security hole. Its like, "Well, 90% of burglaries happen through the front door, so I'm going to take the lock off the back and put it on the front to be extra safe!"
posted by delmoi at 10:02 PM on March 15, 2002

Just to clarify my position,
-I think profiling people by looks is a bad and stupid idea (when you do that, the kind of stuff that happened to my acquaintance I cited above, happens). U gotta take a proper look at the passport etc.
-Profiling is not the best solution or even a good solution.

However, considering the sheer number of people that have to screened, that seems to be the one of the few feasible idea in the short term. However, if you continue with it for a long time and dont replace it with a fair and proper security policy, it is bound drive deep wedges in society.

..ok now I am thru! (feeling slightly foolish about the 4 posts!)
posted by justlooking at 10:54 PM on March 15, 2002

justlooking, are you sure that's why your friend was denied a visa extension? I honestly haven't heard of this particular sort of thing happening as such, and I can think of a few examples. If it happened exactly as you described, it's pretty offensive.
posted by donkeyschlong at 11:02 PM on March 15, 2002

This is a rather breezy article. Yes, the 9/11 terrorists were young Islamic males; but they were also non-citizens, some of them were on watch lists, and various other items such as internet purchases and one-way tickets and lack of luggage added up to behavior that in a more cautious environment might have prevented many of them from boarding their flights. It's not profiling per se that's the issue here; it's the profiling questions we ask. The Israelis ask more questions than we do. Before 9/11 it was pretty much "have you packed your own bags?" and "have they been in your presence the entire time?" which were intended as bulwarks against a couple of plane bombings that happened nearly 20 years ago. Well, yes, we closed off that avenue, but there are others to look at; and for sure a congregation of five passengers with red flags should not be permitted to fly together, or air marshals should be assigned to watch them -- as the Israelis did with Reid when he flew out of Tel Aviv and made their profile machine ding like a slot machine.

I believe that random personal searches will always be a requirement of air security from now on, but perhaps we don't need to do as many. And we need to make clear that flying on an airplane means sacrifice of certain personal rights, such as egalitarian notions that if one has some of the red flags that they should not be subjected to more scrutiny, even on a regular basis. We can't argue back from effect here (e.g. programs designed to ensure that police don't arrest more blacks on average than live in the jurisdiction). And I regret to say it but holders of foreign passports do not actually have all the rights of American citizens; they deserve decent treatment, but that does not exclude scrutiny. Customs agents routinely ask people all sorts of questions, like the purpose of their trip -- and while it's easy to lie, they're schooled in how to casually lure people into contradictions or showing their nervousness.

But if we want to give up the searches, we'll have to commit to spending a lot more money on airport security, and paying and training those people well.
posted by dhartung at 11:02 PM on March 15, 2002

Krauthammer's editorial isn't 100% wrong. Airport security is still a joke, grannies are being stripsearched not because they are believed to be packing blowup toys but precisely because they don't fit the profile which, by the way, is the main tool being used. Of course it shouldn't just be looking at young Arab males; the Israelies picked up on Nikeboy Reid, and he's not Arab. The customs service and dea are very good at profiling mules of any sex and every race. Real profilers are looking for things that transcend race and sex and national origin.
posted by Mack Twain at 11:51 PM on March 15, 2002

donkeyschlong: It is always possible that there is a different, perfectly logical explanation. He hasn't been given a reason for the rejection from the consulate and this is what they figure has happened. The other two brothers live here and neither had any problem getting back - but they didnt go for a visa renewal.

I too haven't heard of anything like this. Consulates can be quite arbitrary at times ...but this was a little weird.

posted by justlooking at 1:57 AM on March 16, 2002

committee chairman with the titanium hip are randomly chosen and subjected to head-to-toe searching for...what?

Because HE SET OFF A METAL DETECTOR. I realize that some people just can't remove all metal and walk through, but this was happening well before 9/11.

Why, for that matter, are we conducting body searches of any female passengers?

Because there are women suicide bombers.

We are engaged in a daily and ostentatious rehearsal of the officially sanctioned proposition that suicide terrorists come from anywhere, without regard to gender, ethnicity, age or religious affiliation.

Because we can't identify religious affiliation from looks. Which is what Krauthammer wants to do.

Imagine that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had not been acting alone but had instead been part of a vast right-wing, antigovernment, terrorist militia with an ideology, a network and a commitment to carrying out attacks throughout America.

Imagine that! Some people believe that Mr. McVeigh wasn't acting alone. Of course, that's a source from the ADL, so you know, is evil. Because, they're Jews and, we can't say that the terrorist militia are nuts.

Would there have been any objection to singling out young white men for special scrutiny at airports and other public places? Of course not.

Yes, everyone would have objected if crop-top white guys were singled out for "special scrutiny", keyword being if. But there wasn't any hue and cry from conservative columnists to single out white men.

True, shoe bomber Richard Reid, while young and Islamic and male, was not Arab.

And since not all the terrorists are Arab, assuming all Arabs are criminals is wrong.
posted by swell at 6:05 AM on March 16, 2002

'Real profilers are looking for things that transcend race and sex and national origin.'

I'm certain that a very good case for profiling can be made. I was just astonished at how baseless his argument was. It was the sort of rant that you'd expect from someone who had not even begun to understand the issues at hand.

'I doubt many people could pick out an "Arab", much less a "muslim" just by looks.'

Spanish and Italian can look somewhat Arab, as can Turks, Persians, Greeks etc. I suppose if we could get them all to dress in their traditional clothing, and carry a copy of the Koran with them at all times, that might help.

Personally I don't see a great deal wrong with a certain form of profiling. For instance, if an attentant, on checking someone in, notices that over the last year that person has travelled from the UAE to Algeria, on to Hamburg, with a stop off in London, prior to coming to the States for 2 months, then gone to Yemen, prior to returning to the US via Paris, I don't see a problem with more attention being paid to them than a granny who is heading back to Florida after visiting her daughter in New York. Risk assessment should always be based on probability, and profiling is an essential part of that. You just need to insure that your criteria is as meaningful as possible.

Regardless, there is certainly room for a decent debate on the subject, but lets make sure that it is conduct in an inclusive manner. We need to seek effective solution that are built upon informed insight rather than emotionally driven ignorant rants.
posted by RobertLoch at 7:12 AM on March 16, 2002

After 9/11, much was made in the media of how intelligent, observant, and patient the planners of the attack must have been.

That being the case, I would be very surprised if the next attack was committed by a young single arab man. Duh, they are going to deliberately use someone who doesn't fit the profile at all. It's not like planners such as Bin Laden are illiterate children who are oblivious to we the parents spelling out "After dinner, shall we have some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?"
posted by bingo at 9:57 AM on March 16, 2002

Profiling is used for trying to spot those who might be carrying drugs. Big deal. If it catches a bomber or drug mule I am all for it. A good cop can often spot a guy that is wanted and a car itself might be "profiled," --why suddenly all the civil liberties stuff when this has been going on in one form or another for years.
posted by Postroad at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2002

I'm surprised nobody here has mentioned John Walker. He said that he supported the 9/11 attacks. If we continue to use racial profiling in this country, Muslim extremists will just gather all their John Walkers and slip right past our security. And don't forget that Al-Qaida has cells in the Philippines (Asian), Somalia (African), and even Bosnia (white). They will most certainly get their next suicide bombing recruits from there. Racial profiling isn't just a stupid idea - it will certainly result in more people getting killed.
posted by laz-e-boy at 12:30 AM on March 17, 2002

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