“Profiling” Is Not a Dirty Word

November 25th, 2010

By Dan Miller

We tip-toe around it because we have allowed politically correct labels to make it seem to be so.

I recently wrote here about constitutional limitations on the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) strip and grope procedures. They subject us to the sorts of governmental control the Constitution was intended to prevent and violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions in ways highly up close and personal. Some illumination, albeit indirect, is shed by the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the essence of which is that a search of one’s person must be reasonable and no more intrusive or degrading than the circumstances mandate. Searches shocking to ordinary human sensibilities fail to meet that test.

President Obama, whose public approval has reached a new low of thirty-nine percent, and his administration are under fire and are

belatedly grasping the political liabilities from the TSA screening uproar, but seem to have few options in dealing with the problem.

The new talking point word from the White House on the controversy is “balance” — with the suggestion that the Transportation Safety Administration would keep the same policies but look for ways to demonstrate more sensitivity. …

The consensus in the administration seems to be that the Department of Homeland Security didn’t do a good enough job of getting out in front of this story and communicating to travelers. This is the default position for the administration when political troubles arise: The product was fine, but the marketing was poor.

That seems pretty lame, and highly disruptive protests are likely and even a few protesters could be very disruptive. Some municipal officials are rebelling. It is not because of poor marketing. TSA Administrator Pistole stated that “not many people could have predicted” the latest outcry. That speaks poorly about Mr. Pistole’s ability to be proactive as well as his apparent perception that the American public is docile, eager to obey, and easy to control. His statement also suggests an incredible lack of situational awareness by those who devised the new TSA procedures.

Although the TSA, in response to a public uproar, is considering ways to make its procedures less objectionable in the long run, there are no plans for short term change “we can believe in.” Of perhaps some interest is this statement in the linked Reuters article:

Authorities … a year ago … prevented a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit with a bomb hidden in a passenger’s clothes.

Would that it were true. The “authorities” didn’t do it; airline passengers did and were the first line of defense. Still, let it not be said that the TSA failed to do everything possible short of profiling and consistent with “CYA” to prevent a similar future occurrence.

Many consider the current TSA procedures necessary for our safety because we, as a society, are not prepared to engage in the cardinal sin of “profiling.” The TSA therefore insists on treating everyone the same — even those with significant medical conditions making it grossly improper to treat them that way. Here is a video of an interview with a bladder cancer survivor whose ostomy bag was messily and in humiliating fashion detached during a grope, even though he had several times cautioned the TSA agent who did it. Was it reasonable to treat him “just like everybody else”? Might a competently trained groper paid and deserving more than a near minimum wage have avoided the problem? That sort of thing, while bad, is merely one symptom of “treat everybody the same except when it is politically correct to do otherwise.”

There is an unfortunate tendency to think in terms of bumper stickers; when they are too complex, labels — racism, sexism, and profiling — are used. There are three basic steps in the labeling process:

Give something bad a label;
Apply the same label to other things;
Treat them as though they were all the same.

Here is one definition of profiling:

Profiling refers to the law enforcement practice of the detention, interdiction, or other disparate treatment of an individual on the basis of the racial or ethnic status of such individual.

Terrorists are not distinguishable from non-terrorists on the basis of race or ethnicity because they are of different races and come from different countries; there have been black and non-black, Arab and non-Arab, terrorists from the United States and elsewhere.

Sensible people profile daily, and not only for law enforcement purposes. A guy walking into a convenience store with a bag over his head and carrying something which appears to be a pistol may intend to rob the store; he may just be en route to a Halloween party, but inherent situational awareness certainly makes us legitimately concerned. “Profiling” is commonly used by the police: if a young Latina (female) is seen robbing a gasoline station, the police presumably concentrate their investigations on young Latinas rather than on elderly males appearing to be Swedish — not because all young Latinas are considered more likely to rob gasoline stations but because the robber of that gasoline station was a young Latina.

Medical professionals often use profiling in diagnosing medical conditions. Members of various racial and ethnic groups show marked statistical susceptibility to various diseases. These factors should be and are considered. So, obviously, do males and females. Males are not generally screened for ovarian cancer nor are women normally screened for testicular or prostate cancer.

The government requires some profiling based on race, ethnicity, and sex. One aspect of this is called affirmative action, which mandates benefits for people in racial, ethnic, and gender groups deemed historically disadvantaged, without regard to whether the beneficiaries, as individuals, have ever been disadvantaged personally because of their race, ethnicity, or sex. Conversely, affirmative action mandates disadvantages for people not in those groups, regardless of their personal situations; it’s pretty much a zero sum game.

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9 Responses to ““Profiling” Is Not a Dirty Word”



  1. Dan Miller |

    R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. of American Spectator on November 18 took a stand against opposition to the new TSA procedures and wrote somewhat disparagingly about the “Drudge gang” and its enablers. He has changed his mind. Now he sees it a bit differently:

    One, my friend [Mark]Hyman had demonstrated the follies of the TSA. They have committed egregious blunders. Two, there were new, even more barbaric ways to secrete a bomb. For one, the savage who almost killed the head of Saudi intelligence had secreted it in his — the polite word is — body cavity. Bombs carried in this manner could not be caught by the scanner or a team of TSA’s best. Three, there was a whole array of freedom issues here, and one could not take them lightly. This was, if not the Tea Party movement at least it was the impulse that gave the Tea Party life, a love of personal liberty that is not found in many nations of the earth.

    This hang-up about profiling is at the root of our problem. It is a false piety practiced by the ancien régime. There is a whole new set of facts presented by the war on terror. It is time for Americans . . . to change their minds.

    According to a Zogby pol, overall 61% of the 2,032 likely voters polled from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22, oppose the use of full body scans and TSA pat downs. Republicans (69%) and Independents (65%) oppose in greater numbers than Democrats (50%). Fifty-two percent believe the enhanced security measures will not prevent terrorist activity, almost half (48%) say it is a violation of privacy rights, 33% say they should not have to go through enhanced security methods to get on an airplane, and 32% believe the full body scans and TSA pat downs to be sexual harassment. This is in line with frequent fliers (fly more than once every 3 months), as 53% say the enhanced measures will not prevent terrorist activity, 48% believe it’s a violation of their privacy rights, 41% say they should not have to go through it to get on an airplane, and 35% believe it is sexual harassment.

    As on noon on November 24, no significant opt-out or other security related delays were reported. At the New Orleans airport,

    As of noon, there were no traffic jams of the human or vehicular variety, and the airport was free of pickets and tantrums. And most travelers didn’t seem to care that they might be subjected to an invasion of privacy.

    It was reported that

    A loosely organized effort urging travelers to shun the use of body scanners at airports across the country, including Los Angeles International, appears to be failing, the Transportation Security Administration said.

    Despite the online call for a “National Opt-Out Day” today, there have been no negative impacts to operations at LAX as airline passengers board flights on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

    Less than 20 people opted out of using the body scanners at LAX as of 11 a.m., which is consistent with a typical day at the nation’s third-busiest airport, said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

    A Google news search for “TSA, airport, Opt out” this morning provided lots of reports that the protests had failed and that travel conditions were normal.

    On the other hand, the We Won’t Fly blog reports that

    TSA started dialing back its security theater last night. We hear they’re not selecting as many people for the scanners and the gropings are not touching genital areas.

    At LAX, the Los Angeles Airport, one hundred and thirty-three passengers opted out of scanning and were groped. Although there have been passenger reports of scanning machines having been turned off, a TSA spokesperson denied it. There are some interesting comments here.

    A representative of the American Automobile Association said, “‘We’re expecting 94 percent of all holiday travelers to go by automobile’ . . . up 12 percent from last year.” That makes sense; even without regard to the new TSA procedures flying has been a generally unpleasant experience for years and, despite bad weather, blizzard warnings and road maintenance construction travel by car has increased significantly.

    Whatever the facts may be, on Thanksgiving Day we must all show gratitude to President Obama for the wonders he hath wrought; for the

    blessings wrought by hope and change, and the bounty that I have brought to this needy land and its humble yet dignified people.”

    And not only that, he promised to pardon the biggest turkey ever.


  2. Tom Carter |

    Dan, there’s frequently confusion about profiling. Let’s say there are two kinds, for simplicity — PC and un-Pc, or behavioral and racial/ethnic. Behavioral profiling, which TSA does practice, involves the way a person acts and appears. As you said, the guy going into the convenience store with a bag over his head and the appearance of carrying a gun looks like he might be going to rob the place, and a police officer would be well beyond reasonable suspicion and into probably cause to stop, question, and frisk him. On the other hand, if most robberies in the county are committed by blond white Mormons, the police cannot stop every blond white Mormon when a robbery occurs, absent some specific reason, e.g., a description of the suspected robber.

    Moreover, you very effective make the point that un-PC profiling (race, ethnicity, religion, etc) doesn’t work anyway: “…there have been black and non-black, Arab and non-Arab, terrorists from the United States and elsewhere.” The same applies to gender, age, and other such characteristics. Simply put, anyone can be a terrorist, witting or unwitting. What all that means is that the kind of profiling that some people seem to want doesn’t work.

    Statistically, the threat of someone blowing up an airplane is very low — and much less than the danger of dying in a car crash if you boycott the airlines. That very low threat, however, can result in large numbers of deaths and a lot of destruction. It seems unlikely that 9/11 could ever be repeated, but blowing up an airliner over a city would be pretty dramatic. Same with subways or trains — just ask the British and the Spanish.

    So do we step-up security on subways, trains, and buses to the level of body scanners or gropes? Or do we back off at the airports and institute the same level of security for other forms of transportation? Or do we go back a few months and leave everything like it was? Those are serious public policy questions that have to be resolved at the federal level and to some extent by states and localities. Since Congress and the Administration don’t have a very good record of dealing with public policy issues large or small, I won’t hold my breath waiting for a rational solution.

    In the meantime, scan me and grope me; I don’t really care that much. Anything that reduces the already small chance that I’ll be blown out of the sky is generally welcome. However, I’ll go along with the majority in terms of acceptable risk — if most folks want to accept the probably slightly enhanced risk of not scanning and groping, I’ll go along. But when the plane begins disintegrating around me, in the seconds I have left I’ll shout, “How are those largely imaginary constitutional rights workin’ out for ya?” Or maybe just “Momma!”


  3. Dan Miller |

    Tom, you say quite correctly that

    Statistically, the threat of someone blowing up an airplane is very low — and much less than the danger of dying in a car crash if you boycott the airlines.

    Still, the chances of a Mormon or member of any other non-Islamist grope group blowing up an airplane are far less than any for those things.

    You ask rhetorically,

    do we step-up security on subways, trains, and buses to the level of body scanners or gropes? Or do we back off at the airports and institute the same level of security for other forms of transportation? Or do we go back a few months and leave everything like it was?

    I don’t think any of these are viable alternatives. Rather, I would like to see far higher levels of the enhanced situational awareness engaged in by well trained professionals as suggested in the article, and the use of the new security measures limited to situations in which such use of enhanced common sense makes them appropriate.


  4. Tom Carter |

    Well, I hear you, but I’m at a loss as to how what you propose would be operationalized. Whoever is selected for examination with enhanced security measures is going to object, and we’re off to the races again. Beyond that, intelligent terrorists will manage not to tromp on the tripwires of “enhanced situational awareness.”

    Truth is, we have to decide how much risk we’re willing to accept in return for less security scrutiny.


  5. Clarissa |

    “That speaks poorly about Mr. Pistole’s ability to be proactive as well as his apparent perception that the American public is docile, eager to obey, and easy to control.”

    -Exactly! Why anybody would expect people to accept such intrusive and demeaning procedures like a bunch of patient sheep is beyond me. The new TSA procedures are wrong and President Obama’s pronouncements on them are lame. Until he and his family undergo the exact same procedures while travelling, he doesn’t have the right to tell people they should put up with this.

    Great post!


  6. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, I agree with you completely. Until politicians and fatcats of other stripes have to suffer the same treatment, people are going to be especially resentful.

    I think what we’re seeing here is (another) interesting lesson in democracy. If enough people are unhappy about something, then changes will be made. Look at what happened on Nov 2….


  7. Dan Miller |

    Clarissa, thanks.

    This article in Canada Free Press — hardly my favorite blog but sometimes there is something there worth reading — states the point about identifying threats pretty well.


  8. Clarissa |

    “If enough people are unhappy about something, then changes will be made. Look at what happened on Nov 2….”

    -Going back to what we had 2 years ago is hardly a change. It seems like we’ll continue going in circles for a while.


  9. Dan Miller |

    In Germany, there is substantial concern about a potential terrorist attack and the country has been placed on high alert.

    On Thursday a conservative politician sent a strong message to the Muslim community, urging scrutiny for “possible fanatics” attending mosques. Germany’s Muslim organization, however, argues that politicians’ rhetoric is divisive.

    German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has urged level-headedness in the midst of escalating terror warnings. Despite his call, politicians across the board are airing their views on how to prevent attacks. In the latest development, a politician from the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, has told Muslims to stay alert, arguing that members of the country’s 2,500 mosque congregations should increase their vigilance.

    “Mosque communities are called on to be especially watchful and keep an eye out for possible fanatics in their ranks, in the light of the current situation,” Stefan Müller, a spokesman on integration issues for the two parties in the federal parliament, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung in an interview published on Thursday.

    The majority of Muslims do not have anything to do with terrorism, said the CSU politician, adding, “it is also in their personal interest to avert the misuse of Islam by radicals.” He urged the community to “intensify cooperation with security authorities and give early warning in any suspicious cases.”
    But the Central Council of Muslims, one of a number of organizations in Germany seeking to represent the broad Muslim population, has warned that Muslims in Germany have been discriminated against on the basis of their religion amid the terror scare. They report that mosques have been the target of attacks and hate mail as a result.

    “We appeal to politicians and the media to deal with the discussions rationally and not to mention Islamic community, Islam and Muslims and terror in the same breath,” the organization said in a press release on Wednesday.

    The path to tranquility is clear: all sectors of society must be alert for suspicious behavior. Protestants, Catholics and Jews must also be alerted to report suspicious behavior in their places of worship, and if the word “terror” is to be used at all (strangely, it has come to have an oddly Islamic connotation), it should be associated with all groups equally. If there is an Amish community in Germany, a terrorist attack is no less likely to arise there than in the Islamic community.

    Right.


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