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In defense of profiling

In the comments section of a recent posting of mine, I got into a bit of a donnybrook with a commenter about the usefulness of profiling vs. higher general security and random searches at airports. It got a bit involved, so I thought it merited its own topic.

The crux of Joe's argument that profiling (which he apparently confused with racial profiling, which is certainly a part but not the whole process) is that we are not facing a homogenous opponent, and therefore by simply giving extra scrutiny to Arab males between the ages of 16 to 39, we run the risk of getting blindsided by terrorists recruited specifically to evade this screen.

Kindly note that the tacit admission that this brand of profiling is effective: the terrorists are having to react and reshape their tactics to get around it. How many of the 19 9/11 hijackers fit the profile? Let's see...1,2,3... hey, ALL OF THEM!

And let's think about this for a moment. Let's say the Islamists are recruiting non-Arabic people to do their bidding. That adds another necessary element to their planning, and gives us more opportunities to uncover their plots.

Let's also be reasonable about just what "profiling" involves. We're not talking about thought crimes here, a la "Minority Report." We're not talking about mass roundups of those who look funny, a la "The Siege." Hollywood is NOT reality, despite what certain people (with names like Sheen, Streisand, or Moore) would have you believe.

Profiling is nothing more than good police work. It's been used for a long time, and it works.

Let me personalize it a little. Profiling first gained prominence in the hunt for serial killers, and it worked. But most serial killers fall into the profile of white, single males between the ages of 18 and 40 -- a category I happen to fall into. (Wayne Williams and Aileen Wuornos were exceptions, but nearly all the others fit the mold.) If a serial killer started operating in my area, I would not be in the least upset if the police started paying attention to me. In fact, I'd welcome it -- the quicker I convince them I'm not their guy, the quicker they can focus on more likely suspects.

Back to the 9/11 hijackers. Was the fact that they were Arab males between 16 and 39 enough to detain them? Of course not. But toss in that they were travelling together, with one-way tickets and no luggage, and at least one of them was here illegally courtesy of an outdated Visa, at least a couple of them should have been taken aside for closer scrutiny. At that point, perhaps more attention would have been paid to the box cutters they were carrying could make passable weapons, and maybe one or more of those flights would have landed safely.

I'm not saying that it would have happened that way, but it certainly could have -- IF those who are trained to protect us are allowed to use their knowledge and training and instincts to DO THEIR JOB.

Now, as to the "presumption of innocence" argument -- it doesn't fly. That right is strictly in relation to court proceedings. If everyone was presumed innocent until proven guilty, then the police could never arrest anyone on "suspicion" -- after all, they haven't been PROVEN guilty yet, so why are they in jail?

Profiling has been given a bad name through some rather notorious (and wrong) abuses. That arose when certain police officers started "racially profiling," got caught, and were rightfully disciplined. But activists like the ACLU jumped on this and dropped the word "racial," and tarred the whole profiling concept with the sins of those stupid cops.

Once again, because a few people abused certain tools, there's a rush to ban all use of those tools to prevent further abuses, regardless of said tool's usefulness and effectiveness in promoting public safety. If a few abuse them, let's take them away from everybody instead of simply coming down hard on those who committed the initial wrong.

Just like the war against the private ownership of firearms.


Update: Pierre Legrand, of The Pink Flamingo Bar And Grill, adds yet another argument that (argh) I really, really should have thought of myself. Thank you, Pierre, for re-asserting the essential nature of the blogosphere: "You might be smarter than any of us (in the blogosphere), but you're nowhere near as smart as all of us."


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference In defense of profiling:

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Comments (14)

Yep, Jay, you are so right.... (Below threshold)

Yep, Jay, you are so right.

Ditto, Ditto, Ditto.... (Below threshold)

Ditto, Ditto, Ditto.

Amen to that, Jay.... (Below threshold)

Amen to that, Jay.

Very simple, anyone who is ... (Below threshold)
Brian Macker:

Very simple, anyone who is against profiling is an idiot.

Many of these so called pro... (Below threshold)

Many of these so called profiling abuses are instances where reasonable minds can differ. However, you only hear the loudmouth/PC side of the case.

Additionally, if anyone merely utters the phrase “racial profiling” in a court case, it will be included in the Racial Profiling Data Collection Resource Center at Northeastern University. So, excuse my skepticism.

That's a heavy hitter to st... (Below threshold)

That's a heavy hitter to start out the new year with!
Profiling is always contained within the data. A study of the facts reveals datum which occur, reoccur and share
elements in common. These high marks form a profile from which a hypothesis is made and a workable theory
arrived at . The only way to ignore a profile is to profile! One must return to the data, profile the offending elements and remove them.
This will not work in the hard sciences of course because that pesky data will not go away. In the social sciences however this will work. It can work because history can be hidden and the offending data
destroyed. Once those alive when it happened perish history dies with them.

Amen. As a person... (Below threshold)


As a person who flys over 100,000 miles per year I am firmly comitted to the premise that "we should be looking for bombers not just bombs" in security. (I read this recently on a blog but am not sure where, sorry for not being able to give credit).

We all profile everyday of our lives and it is an essential tool to security. Training of ticket agents, security personnel and gate agents to ask good questions, listen to observe results and profile the results to determine if further screening is needed is a gaint step in the right direction.

Ok, so I read the bomber/bo... (Below threshold)

Ok, so I read the bomber/bombs line right here on Wibang in this post http://wizbangblog.com/archives/004646.php - Sorry.

Greg, I immediately recogni... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Greg, I immediately recognized that youd remembered the quote from my previous piece, and had a good chuckle. Way, WAY too often I remember something, but not where I saw it. I've lost a couple of good pieces because I couldn't track down my original inspiration.

And for the record: the original person who said it was a fill-in talk show host on WRKO. I want to say it was either Todd Feinburg or Spencer Hughes, but I'm not sure any more. Whoever it was, though, he nailed it.


The TSA is currently trying... (Below threshold)

The TSA is currently trying to keep "weapons" off the planes. This is impossible - anything can be used as a weapon (the same applies to the idiotic zero-tolerance policies in schools). The last time I flew (12/29/04), I had with me:

* stainless steel pen (stabbing weapon)
* Zippo lighter (arson weapon)
* belt with a metal buckle (whip-like and/or ball-and-chain-like weapon (and using the lighter to melt free a length of seatbelt would make for an even more effective version))
* shoelaces (garrote weapon)
* socks and a few dollars worth of change (sap weapon)
* hard-cover book (shield)
* hard plastic carry-on bag handle (once removed from bag, brass knuckle-like weapon)

and that's with just a few minutes of thought. With forethought and planning, it would not be difficult to come up with a much wider variety of ordinary, TSA-accepted objects that could be used even more effectively.

Then there's all the objects already on board that could be used - glass wine bottles in first class, fire extinguishers, oxygen bottles (knock the neck off, or use to enhance the effect of a lighter), and many more.

It's not enough to "look for bombers, not bombs", because when the profiling fails you have a planeload of people deprived of the most effective tool for self-defense.

The "security check" at the airport should be nothing more than a courtesy check for AP, API, tracer, and other ammo that would be inappropriate for use in the confines of an aircraft. If found, the owner should be offered a magazine's (or cylinder's) worth of appropriate ammo for the firearm. Sure, the terrorists could then also bring firearms aboard, but the only way they could guarantee that they wouldn't be out-gunned would be to put large numbers of them on a flight. Any flight with such a high percentage of profile-matching passengers would then receive the attention it deserves.

Ridgerunner makes a good po... (Below threshold)

Ridgerunner makes a good point: "The only way to ignore a profile is to profile." First knucklehead bureaucrats like Norman Mineta have to figure out who is most likely to be a terrorist so that they can create an environment that focuses on everybody who is NOT likely to be a terrorist. The objective is to prove how politically correct they are, at the very possible cost of innocent lives.

I was "profiled" by TSA eve... (Below threshold)
RM3 Frisker FTN:

I was "profiled" by TSA even though I am a white male between the ages of 18-45 with a good credit rating current employment and zero police record.


My employer bought me a one-way airplane ticket on less four-hours notice so that I was able to return to the home office (i'm still employed by the way ;-);-);-)

I thanked TSA for how thouroughly they searched _ALL_ my bags, hand-held metal detector screened my entire body, and hand searched my entire body (including crotch & butt-crack). Also, my checked bags missed my flight and connection due to the searches.

I think the TSA is looking for _BOTH_ bombs and bombers. They are not looking for the 'stupid weapons' (e.g. ball point pens and Zippo Lighters) that a mass of airline passangers can overcome by mass assault a la the militia (grin) aboard Flight 93

Physical screening of passe... (Below threshold)

Physical screening of passengers is a total failure (http://www.joehuffman.org/Freedom/ScreeningFails.htm). It has been known to be failure for decades. And it will probably continue to be a failure as long as the passengers are allowed to have a shred of dignity. It is a nearly 2 billion dollar exercise in making some people feel good. See for example this from security expert Bruce Schneier (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2004/12/airline_securit.html). (Quote: I think airline passenger screening is inane. It's invasive, expensive, time-consuming, and doesn't make us safer. ) I've done numerous tests (http://blog.joehuffman.org/archive/2004/12/09/537.aspx) of airport security on my own with complete failure on the part of the screeners.

Given that physical screening is a waste of time there are only a limited number of options available to us. I've attempted to enumerate them and the consequences here:


There ARE known ways of improving security without violation of our 4th Amendment rights and people are talking about them but politically they are unlikely to get support. For some examples see these posts:


The key to profiling's legi... (Below threshold)

The key to profiling's legitimacy is whether the profiling is done based on behavior rather than ascribed characteristics. As you mention (and a commenter amplifies), what should have alerted private airport security on 9/11 was not 19 Arab-looking men, but 19 men with unusual flight itineraries and accoutrements (or lack thereof). It's exactly the same premise that applies to profiling on our roads: you don't pull over black people, you pull over people who are weaving or have no taillights.

It's wise to drop the "racial" when talking about profiling, because there are many ways to profile--as you indicate. But it IS important to specifically condemn all forms of characteristic-based profiling, as opposed to behavior-based.






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