Monday, August 14, 2006

On Profiling

In the comments to a previous post GipperClone responded to my rather feeble attempt to be glib by noting that, in his opinion, political correctness has once again gotten the best of us and that we should begin to profile Muslims when screening passengers at airports.  So as not be accused of misrepresenting his views, I’ll quote them directly:

The only people who would blow up a plane are Muslims. While I am not saying that all Muslims blow up (or would blow up) planes, I am saying that all of the people who would blow up planes, or blow up buildings, or detonate themselves in crowded markets, or cut people's heads off on live video feeds, or send their own kids to die as suicide bombers, are Muslims -- or at least that is what the last thirty years of reality has taught us.

To be perfectly honest there is some practical truth to GC’s position.  In fact a lot more than many of us are comfortable admitting.  While he clearly over exaggerates his points – namely by failing to note that the Unibomber, Oklahoma City bombings, the  Atlanta Olympic Bombing, and the failed “shoe bomber” attempts all would seem to be in direct contradiction to his assertions – nevertheless there are issues here worth exploring.  Security at airports is awful on a good day, and after any major breach or thwarted breach of security it only gets worse, albeit for a relatively short period of time.   The question is what do we do?  

I’m not sure that profiling is the answer; of course I’m not sure that it isn’t the answer either.  I agree with the notion that we need to be more selective with respect to who is screened and who is not.  That said, I sure wouldn’t want to be in the meetings that attempts to set those criteria, nor can I think of anyone who would.  Therein, I think, lurks the real problem.  It’s not “political correctness” that is making things difficult, it’s our own inability to accurately describe and detect the kind of person or people who would want to bring about massive death and destruction by hijacking or otherwise downing an airplane full of passengers.  Assume that society decides that profiling is necessary and a “good” thing.  How do we do it?  Do we screen by race, religion, income, destination, physical appearance, or some combination of all the above?  It is one thing to say all Muslims should be screened and no one else because right now they pose the greatest threat, but how do we tell the difference between Muslims and anyone else?  Sure, it’s easy in some cases, as some Muslims dress or act in ways that make them easy to spot in a crowd at JFK.  Others, however, are not so outwardly obvious about their religion.  And of course once profiling starts they will simply alter their appearances or enlist followers who blend in with the non-threat profile.  Moreover, how do we distinguish Muslims from other religions that employ very similar dress and mannerisms, i.e., Hindus or Buddhists?  If I didn’t know that both GC and Paul to be Catholic I wouldn’t be able to tell that just by looking at them.  Similarly, if they didn’t know I was Jewish, they wouldn’t be able to tell just by my physical appearance.  So do we make people disclose their religious affiliation when purchasing an airline, bus, or train ticket, or is there another way?  Even if we did those things, what would prevent people from lying or simply omitting the answer claiming no affiliations or only “peaceful ones” like Quaker?

These are hard questions and I know I’ve only barely scratched the surface.  Note, I’ve not raised any “legal” arguments against profiling.  Largely because I think the practical problems are enough to give many of us pause and force at least a lengthy discussion about the ramifications of such a policy.  That said, however, I don’t necessarily think that the legal obstacles are insurmountable, especially given the rather lax Fourth Amendment treatment that airline searches have been given in the past.  While there will be some very loud legal opposition, I’m not sure that it would ultimately be sustained. Given the current state of law, I’m forced to conclude that reasonable profiling policy that can be practically justified and fairly enforced would probably withstand legal scrutiny; hence, the legal/constitutional concerns are secondary to my analysis.

I’m not yet convinced that we can easily overcome the practical problems with a profiling policy, but I’m willing to entertain thoughts and suggests and honestly state that I can be persuaded.  I think something needs to change in our security system, I just don’t know precisely what or how to accomplish it.  Simply recognizing that one group of people pose a grave threat isn’t sufficient and, in my opinion, oversimplifies the problem.  At the same time, screening every grandma and grandpa at the airport who are merely going to visit their newborn grandchild isn’t a productive and efficient use of our limited resources either.  So I put the questions to you all, thoughts and comments are eagerly anticipated.  


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