Saturday, January 2, 2010

Racial Profiling

I was going to write a response to Brad's comment on the 'Why Do They Hate Us?' post, but I decided that the topic was worth a post of its own. In that post, I wrote in passing that I hoped racial profiling wouldn't be necessary to stop terrorism. In his comment, Brad suggested that we should do racial profiling if it works. So, I wondered, does it?

To all outward appearances, it certainly seems as though it should. To take the reductio ad absurdum argument, let's say a flight has two passengers, and we're going to search one. One is Betty Lundgren, a 75-year-old grandmother of six from Indiana. The other is Abdul Mohammad Hussein, a 22-year-old student from Saudi Arabia. Hmmm, who should we search?

Part of the problem, of course, is that over 99.9% of all men with Abdul, Mohammad, or Hussein in their names are not terrorists, so to have a decent chance of catching those who are by racial/ethnic profiling, we'd have to search a very large percentage of them, which isn't practical. So, we can search Abdul, but we're very likely not to find anything. I do, absolutely, think it's stupid to search Betty. Doing that, I think, is pointlessly P.C., just to show that we're not profiling, we're searching everyone. Speaking as a man, I'm perfectly content if 95% of their random searches are performed on men.

After thinking about this question, it seems to me that there are two types of situations in which racial profiling might be used: to catch terrorists on international flights, and to catch criminals domestically. I find that domestically speaking, I'm absolutely opposed to it, even if it does catch more criminals than would be caught if it wasn't used. One reason is that profiling isn't going to catch violent criminals; if it catches anyone, it'll be drug users or dealers (since arrest-able evidence must be found on the suspect for profiling to work), and I don't view drug use as all that serious. The main reason I oppose it domestically is that the major 'suspect group' is young black men, followed by young Latino men. I belong to neither group, but I've talked to blacks who've been pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black), and I can imagine how it would affect them. Being searched just for belonging to a certain demographic group quickly creates resentment within the group searched, 95% of whom are perfectly innocent. I don't want any ethnic group feeling persecuted just for the sake of catching a few drug dealers.

Internationally, however, my feelings are less clear. I'll admit that I'm not as worried about making Arabs or Muslims feel less persecuted, as 1) terrorists tend to overwhelmingly be from their ethnic group, and 2) the crime, when it happens, can cause hundreds of deaths. Here, if profiling works, I'm all for it. The main question is, does it work? Not being an expert, I can't know. I believe that even the experts aren't in total agreement. My guess is that if you're going to search people, profiling works better than totally random searches, but statistically, the improvement in the success rate is going to be tiny. Millions of people travel by air each year, and on average, less than a dozen try to blow up a plane. To find one of those by a random search, even one assisted by profiling, would be a wild stroke of luck.

So, what to do? A few days ago, I was pointed by Andrew Sullivan's very good blog to an article about airport terror prevention that focused on how the Israelis do it. The Israelis, of course, have a large percentage of Arabs in their own population, and are the world's number one terrorism target. (Lest they seem too much like victims, let's remember that this is because they've been an occupying power against over a million Palestinians for the last four decades.) How do they handle it? The article explains it, and it's very interesting. You should read the article, but the very short answer is that they focus on looking into people's eyes rather than searching bags. Does it work? The record speaks for itself; Israel hasn't suffered from air terrorism for over three decades. Why don't we do this? I sure as hell don't know. I suppose the answer is that change is always difficult, that even for airport security, there's resistance to changing the way things are.

One of the important things I took away from that article was that we need to be flexible, to do what works rather than what we've always done. And most importantly, not to do stupid stuff just for the sake of appearing to be doing something. After the most recent terror attempt by this Nigerian guy Abdulmutallab, the airlines decreed that people wouldn't be allowed to walk around for the last hour of the flight. Oh, good idea! Now the terrorists will only be able to try to blow up the plane at 30,000 feet, rather than on approach! That'll help so much! I was stunned that this notion wasn't laughed out of whatever meeting it was brought up in. This kind of dumbass idea just shows that we're not serious about stopping terrorists. The Israelis are, so they do what works. Will we ever get serious about it? Hard to say. As I said, I don't know whether profiling works. If it does, let's use it, even if it's not P.C. If it doesn't, let's not use it just so we appear to be doing something. Ideology aside, let's do what works.


  1. Hello again!

    > to have a decent chance of catching those who
    > are by racial/ethnic profiling, we'd have to search
    > a very large percentage of them, which isn't
    > practical. So, we can search Abdul, but we're
    > very likely not to find anything.

    Ah, but if there *is* a terrorist on the plane, the odds are very very high that it will be Abdul! Given, as stated, the fact that nearly every terrorist is an Arab.

    Yes, the odds are very low that there will be one or more terrorists on any one specific flight. But if that was a deterrent to security screening we wouldn't have any inspections at all.

    No, we have security screening to try and detect those few terrorists who do try to slip on board those few flights. And - if there *is* a terrorist on board - a policy of screening all the Arabs is going to be much more likely to find him than one which leaves some Arabs unchecked.

    To put it another way:

    > Millions of people travel by air each year, and
    > on average, less than a dozen try to blow up a
    > plane. To find one of those by a random
    > search, even one assisted by profiling, would
    > be a wild stroke of luck.

    I don't agree; I think you're again making things sound impossible by contemplating all passenger flights in total. But I'm not interested in the (low) fraction of flights that terrorists pick. What I want to know is - if there *is* a terrorist on my flight, what are the chances that the screening will pick him out (and save my life)? And screening all the Arabs will drastically improve those odds.

    I'll go along with your domestic versus international balance, which is largely the case of your balancing the disquiet that will be generated within a subset of society versus the number of criminals that might be caught multiplied by your (subjective?) assessment of the 'severity' of their criminal activities.

    I think I said in my earlier comment that I didn't want the risk against *my life* increased just so politically correct zealots can keep faith in their pie-in-the-sky 'reality detached' models (from the safety of their offices). My life isn't put at risk by flying with domestic criminals; I'm happy for the USA, Japan, etc to work out their domestic problems however they want. But I don't want to fly with a terrorist whose aim is to kill me (and my fellow passengers). As far as my life is concerned there's a black and white difference that maps in a straightforward manner into your domestic/international delineation.

    I haven't read the Israeli article yet, but one thought - how well paid are the security people over there, versus the USA? Because it's my impression that - as is typical with so many jobs these days - the airports possibly pick the 'lowest bidder'. The security people I've seen at airports haven't seemed to be particularly diligent or alert; your typical bored public servants with pretty badges. Are US airport security services privatised? Are their costs part of the 'bottom line' that is so important these days?

    > Now the terrorists will only be able to try to
    > blow up the plane at 30,000 feet, rather than
    > on approach! That'll help so much!

    Well, it might help in preventing an aircraft from falling down out of the sky into a major settlement and killing people on the ground too, don't you think?

    I can't say "that would have stopped the 11th Sep 2001 disasters" because - I gather - the aircraft were hijacked well before the final hour? But hijacking is much more difficult these days; the biggest fear is a bomb triggered in passenger territory I think. Most planes would be well away from major urban centres one hour out from landing. I dunno, I'm no expert on such things.

  2. I think it's easy for us to say that racial profiling should be used when we are not a part of the harassed minority. Also, and actually of greater relevance, is the fact that once profiling starts to be used, terrorists will simply alter their names, appearance, etc. so that they fall outside of the profile. Since many terrorists are of Arab descent and residing in the U.S., then it wouldn't take much for them to get the documents they need to fake a name, nor would it be all that difficult to alter their appearance to resemble a less suspicious ethnic group (Indians, Hispanics, African-American or other people with similarly-colored skin). Any hurdle that is put up quickly becomes a known hurdle and can then be side-stepped. The techniques that the Israelis employ, which are designed to detect intent rather than superficial characteristics, can not be gotten around and are more meaningful than racial profiling. Terroritsts could also simply recruit more people who are outside of the normal physical specifications.

    I think that the way to look at this is that racial profiling rather than psychological evaluation is the equivalent of throwing rocks at your prey and hoping to hit it just right and knock it out rather than using a gun with a very good scope. It might work, but it's crude and only sporadically effective as a tool.

    You hit the nail on the head when you talk about the salaries of security personnel. Airport security are little more than mall cops with a little more training and a lot more authority. While I'm sure they are not paid very poorly, they are certainly not paid very well. As is so often the case, this is about money. Losing lives to terrorists is second to the bottom line. Airlines don't want to pay to train or keep highly-qualified people. I'm sure someone has actually done some sort of cost-benefit analysis akin to the type we often hear about when things like food and drug safety is researched. They consider the cost of lawsuits from deaths versus increased expenses and decide any possible lawsuits are cheaper so they will choose to let people die.

    Finally, I'm not sure that the first and last hour thing has anything to do with making sure planes don't go down over major urban areas. Frankly, if someone wants to blow up a plane, what is to stop them from accomplishing it right at their seat during the last hour?

    I can't claim to have all of the knowledge required to talk about what it takes to sneak a bomb on a plane and set it off, but I'm guessing that there is a way to carry it off when you want, if that is of importance. Let's face it, terrorists used plastic box cutters to control the 9-11 airplanes when metal was put out of their reach. There's always a way around security. Terrorists are like roaches, you can seal off one area of entry and they'll squeeze in through another.