David Adesnik of Oxblog has a round-up on the pros and cons of profiling, featuring the arguments and counter-arguments of Colbert King (anti) and Charles Krauthammer, Paul Sperry and Haim Watzman (pro). These arguments don't all meet head on. Colbert inveighs against racial profiling. But Paul Sperry's argument isn't primarily based on race at all. He says we know from experience who the high risk groups are and would be fools not to use what we know. He takes pains to distinguish "young Muslim men of Arab or South Asian origin", who he suggests constitute a high risk group, from Muslim grannies, who he says don't. The sort of profiling Mr. Sperry suggests relies on several attributes, the principal one of which isn't race, but religion. But since religion is a nonphysical attribute, the secondary but visible characteristics of ethnic origin and age are likely to predominate in actual application. King's raises the objection of the false positive, pointing out that racial descriptions would cover a homeland security officer he knows and people like his own son. And what, he asks, is the sense of that?
It appears to matter not to Sperry that his description also includes huge numbers of men of color, including my younger son, a brown-skinned occasional New York subway rider who shaves his head and moustache. He also happens to be a former federal prosecutor and until a few years ago was a homeland security official in Washington. Sperry's profile also ensnares my older brown-skinned son, who wears a very short haircut, may wear cologne at times, and has the complexion of many men I have seen in Africa and the Middle East. He happens to be a television executive.
The justification for profiling derives from statistics. Insurance companies use it to set your premiums. Customs inspectors use it to identify drug mules. A geologist who is looking for oil sinks his drill near certain structures. The enemy uses profiling all the time, the false positives be damned. Robert Fisk was beaten by Afghans on the mistaken assumption that he was a Westerner. BBC correspondent Frank Gardner was shot by Islamists in Riyadh even as he cried "I’m a Muslim, help me, I’m a Muslim, help me".
Even using his geological profile, the prospector will drill many a dry hole, analogous to pulling over a King's federal prosecutor or television executive son. Yet that does not alter the fact that he is well advised to play the likelihoods or go broke. Rejecting profiling in principle is tantamount to throwing away information. The argument against any sort of profiling, especially racial profiling, cannot be based on the false positive. It must instead rely on the assertion that it costs will offset its benefits. The potential public relations disaster of profiling people like Lieutenant Neil Prakash, for example, who won the Silver Star in Iraq, must be set against whatever benefits the policy would yield. On a net benefit basis, racial profiling may very well be a bad move.
It is also a frank admission of the want of a better tool. I've often argued that mass categorizations are what is left after we've denied ourselves the means to precisely target perpetrators protected by political correctness. You screen everybody who comes out of the Finsbury Park mosque when you cannot deport its notorious imam. A policy which forswears fighting terrorism abroad will imply you are going to screen everyone who arrives at the border. If nobody wants to find Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan they will sooner or later do house to house searches in Leicester. The inability of the "moderate" Islamic community to discourage terrorists in their midst may mean you can't separate the sheep from the goats and one day everyone of certain persuasion will be presumed to be goat. Political correctness is the process of shutting our eyes; profiling is the groping that we do afterwards.