Monday, August 22, 2005

Liberal Lighthouse: Raspberry on "Profiling" - A while back, I engaged in a rather interesting exchange with some folks at Kira Zalan's blog on the very subject of "racial/ethnic" versus "behavioral" profiling. You can see the full extent of this exchange here on Kira's comment board for her relevant post. Here's what I posted in my very first comment on the subject:

18. Jimmy | August 9th, 2005 at 9:49 pm

“The profilers are trained to look for signs of suspicious behavior (body language), which provides effective clues of whom to question.”

If this is how profiling is to be conducted, then I’m all for it. By that measure, profilers should be searching people of all races and ethnicities who are acting suspiciously. But there are some potential flaws to this: (1) I would imagine the well-trained terrorists know how to give out the “correct” unsuspicious body language; and (2) innocent folks of particular ethnicities that are most often associated with terrorism might be unable to avoid acting suspicious out of understandable nervousness at being profiled. The result: suspicious-looking innocents will be searched while the cool-as-cucumber terrorists walk by without a second glance.
My comment generated a rather bizarre set of responses because I didn't want to restrict "behavior" profiling to "dark-skinned Muslims" based on the notion that color-blind behavior profiling would do more to protect us from terrorism (and be more fair) than a "color first, behavior second" profiling scheme. In any case, if you're really interested in this exchange, you can read it for yourselves.

But the real reason why I bring this up now is because I just finished reading a column by William Raspberry who echoed the very sentiments that I was trying to convey in the discussion on Kira's blog. Here's the most relevant section of Raspberry's column:
The other, more serious problem is that the pro-profilers are fighting the last war. If someone had stopped 19 young Muslim men from boarding four jetliners four years ago, Sept. 11 wouldn't have happened. Therefore, security requires that we make it difficult for young Muslim men to board jetliners. It's as though white people come in all sizes, ages and predispositions, while young Arab men are fungible.

Random checks at least have the virtue of rendering us all equal. I can talk with any fellow passenger about the absurdity of having to remove my loafers, because that fellow passenger has been similarly inconvenienced. But with whom does a young Arab (or Turk or dreadlocked college student) share his humiliation?

And make no mistake, it is humiliating. Stop me once because someone fitting my description or driving a car like mine is a suspect in a crime and I shrug and comply. Stop me repeatedly because of how I look and I respond with less and less grace.

Am I arguing against all efforts to protect America from terrorism? Of course not. But since Americans look all sorts of ways, a more sensible way of deciding who gets extra attention is behavior.

The profilers say this is just political correctness gone mad. McCarthy puts it bluntly: "Until we stop pretending not to see what the terrorists who are attacking us look like, we may as well give them an engraved invitation to strike again."

Well, we do know what they look like. They look like the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, but they also look like Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla and -- don't forget -- Timothy McVeigh.

Profile that.
Profile that, indeed. For my part, I would add to Raspberry's sensible critique that post-9/11 will most likely see terrorists who DON'T fit the racial profile carrying out the next wave of attacks. Why? Because the terrorists aren't stupid. They know that young dark-skinned men who look like they could be Muslims of middle-east origins will have a harder time now getting by security. But they also know that the more that skin-color/appearance becomes the prime measure of profiling, the more likely it is that the terrorist who doesn't fit this racial/ethnic profile can slip by unnoticed.

Raspberry is right that either random searches or searches based on suspicious behavior regardless of race/ethnicity will make it not only more palatable to the traveller but can also help to build bridges of mutual trust between different racial and ethnic groups. And I would add to this that color-blind searches based on behavior or done randomly will also make it infintely harder for terrorists to think that they can use the racial/ethnic profiling preference to their advantage.

1 comment:

MPH said...

Do we want to make it more palatable? or do we want to save lives?

Kira's analysis was spot on - Raspberry's comments are pure sludge..