In a recent essay, called “In Defense of Profiling,” Sam Harris defends profiling. The basic idea is sound, even though he’s gotten some opposition. You look at some person and figure “Oh, that person is very unlikely to be a terrorist” based on some model or another, and ignore them. Then you look at another person and you go “Oh, that person is much more likely to be a terrorist … better check ’em out” and so on. If your concept of what makes a person more likely a terrorist is correct, then you will have a better chance of catching a terrorist, and it will take fewer resources to do so.
But it must be done correctly.
I remember once waiting to get on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, with a connection to Nairobi and Johannesberg. My ticket would bring me to Nairobi, where I would seek transport to the Congo (then Zaire) via a small charter plane or something. I would not be returning for many months (close to a year) so even if I knew when I was coming back, I could not have bought, at that time, a round trip ticket. So I had only a one way ticket. To the middle of Africa.
As I plodded forward in line, I noticed a very tall black man, an American, wearing a huge giant cowboy hat, and speaking rather loudly in a Texas accent. It thought to my self, “This guy is going to have a hard time getting on this plane.” I had profiled him, in a sense. But when he got up to security, he pulled out his Israeli passport (he was, it turns out, a former American citizen, now a citizen of Israel) and passed through with no problems. When I arrived to that checkpoint, they took one look at my ticket and my passport and virtually arrested me. I was hounded by Isreali security operatives for the hours before the flight, separated from my American traveling companion so we could be grilled separately, and interviewed by several different agents. When we finally got to Tel Aviv, we were detained in an a windowless locked room for the four or so hours between flights, then watched carefully when we boarded the plane.
Months later, in a conversation with a highly placed Israeli government official that happened to be a friend of mine, I found out why; Only a few years earlier, a bunch of guys got on a plane leaving Tel Aviv, with one way tickets to somewhere, and hijacked the plane to a point only a few hundred kilometers from where I was going. Remember the Air France hijacking and the raid on Entebbe? When my friend told me that, I suddenly remembered mentioning Entebbe during one of the interrogations, during which they were asking me how I would get to Zaire … because it did, in fact, usually involve a stop in that Ugandan city.
Essentially, I had done the equivalent of going to a suburb of Oklahoma City soon after the bombing there, renting a Ryder truck, and when they ask what kind of insurance I wanted, saying “None. I don’t expect to be returning the truck in one piece anyway. Oh, and can you give me directions to the nearest Federal Building?”
The moral of that story is that the Israeli security people are much better at “profiling” than I am. They spotted some people with a suspicious itinerary. Had the American security people been on the ball with itineraries, they may have prevented 9/11, where several guys who had a loose association independently bought plane tickets using an overlapping set of credit cars (or whatever, I don’t remember the details).
Here’s another one: On the way back from that very trip, I ended up travelling through Frankfurt, and I remember someone … an old man … helping out a younger woman. The woman had a carry-on and a purse, and now she also had a bag of stuff she had bought in the Duty Free shop. Then, she discovered that she could not carry on three things, so this old guy she didn’t even know offered to carry her bag of duty free items for her. I was right there when the security person asked him (this was back in the days when they still did this) if he was carrying anything given to him by someone else. Even though he was, he said “no” and was let on the plane with this young woman’s bottles of liquor. Which could have been bombs. So, right there is a BAD example of profiling. The security people should have known, old people can be easily fooled into carrying stuff they are not supposed to be carrying.
There is a further irony to that flight. It was Pan Am 103 to NY I was boarding. The flight I boarded was the one a few days before the one that was blown up by a bomb in the luggage. (Close call,right?!)
So, profiling can make a difference, you just have to know what and whom to look for. White males between the ages of 20 and 35 are responsible for a large amount of crime, and can probably be recruited into a number of different causes. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, you know the type. Old people can’t be trusted. Young white women, like the one who apparently carried the luggage that blew up Pan Am 103 are clearly a danger. Brownish people like the ones who were involved in 9/11 might be terrorists. Black males from England and Africa seem to occasionally try to light stuff on fire, though Black males form the US so far are pretty cool and have not shown themselves to be a problem. But I would keep an eye on them anyway. Why? Because if there is a “type” of person who does not have an association with being terroristic, then terrorists can simply recruit those people. Like Fisher’s rule for sex ratio balance. So, the most likely terrorist is the one who does NOT fit the profile, thus allowing us to add that type of person to the profile list!
See? Its easy, and effective.
Oh, and Sam Harris? He’s totally the type. In fact, in his essay, he admits to smuggling explosive materials onto a plane. Clearly, the security people should have been looking out for white males of a certain age. They certainly dropped the ball on that one. I wonder if Harris can still be arrested for the felony he admits to?
For more information on the statistical and numerical approaches to having fun with profiling, click here.