Thoughts of an American Centrist

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What is Profiling?

Cross posted at "The Yellow Line"

To begin an embroiled debate centered around the tension between law enforcement, anti-terrorism, and civil liberties, one need only mention the word "profiling." Of course, it's not profiling per se which gets people so uppity, but rather what they assume you mean, namely, racial profiling. Racial profiling by definition describes the automatic suspicion of guilt based solely on race. I will acknowledge that such a practice is discriminatory, counter-productive, and insulting. However, I don't want to talk about racial profiling today. Instead, I want to talk about profiling of a different type: behavioral profiling. I believe that creating a sketch - a profile - of the types of people likely to commit terrorist acts is absolutely essential to successfully protecting the public good.

Webster's lists one definition of the word "profile" as:

4 : a set of data often in graphic form portraying the significant features of something... a graph representing the extent to which an individual exhibits traits or abilities as determined by tests or ratings

Note the use of the term "significant features." The word is plural. To effectively hold an accurate mental picture, police officers must be able to look for and recognize a variety of factors, including reticence to questions, nervous glances, paranoia, when appropriate, race. Racial profiling is not the act of using race as one piece in a criminal profile, but of using race as the only characteristic.

Kira Zalan writes a very compelling argument for including race in the list of factors that make up a terrorist profile:

We must stop pretending that the terrorists so far, by-and-large, have not been of the same ethnic origin. This will reasonably narrow down the search for potential perpetrators. But, it makes ALMOST as little sense to stop every Arab or North African in NYC today as it does to stop every 5th random person. Therefore, the profiling must be even more exact than race to be effective.

Israel has been perfecting the art of profiling, and has successfully prevented El Al (national airline) hijackings since 1970. The profilers are trained to look for signs of suspicious behavior (body language), which provides effective clues of whom to question. Barring exceptional con artists, body language is a dead give away of suspicious behavior. In fact, police officers are trained to look for such clues when dealing with everyday criminals.

The results: plenty of Arabs fly El Al, and yet enough people have been turned away to prevent terrorist attacks since 1970.

So why not fly some Israelis to NYC to train New York’s finest on such tactics?

Now that idea makes a lot of sense.


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