Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Profiling: Racial and Behavioral

From the New York Post, an article from Yishai Ha'etzni (Executive Director of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute) on the necessity of profiling.
Following a spate of terrorist hijackings and other attacks on civilian aircraft and airports in the late 1960s and ‘70s, Israel developed a security system that utilized sociological profiles of those seeking to harm Israelis, among other factors.

The American system developed at the same time relied primarily on technology like scanning devices, which checked people and baggage uniformly.

Facing a less benign threat, Israelis found this system insufficient: Explosives and other weapons could slip through too easily. Since it wasn’t feasible to perform extensive security searches on every passenger, Israel used sociological profiles in addition to screening devices: Each passenger is questioned briefly and then airport security personnel use their judgment to identify suspect would-be passengers, who are then questioned at greater length and their bags searched more thoroughly. It is targeted and far more effective than random searches, which end up being nearly cosmetic.

Screening and random searches would not have averted the tragedy that profiling stopped on April 17, 1986. Anne-Marie Murphy, a pregnant Irish woman, was traveling alone to Israel to meet her fiancé’s parents. Her bags went through an X-ray machine without problems, and she and her passport appeared otherwise unremarkable.

But in a perfect example of the complexity of profiling, a pregnant woman traveling alone roused the suspicions of security officials. They inspected her bags more closely and discovered a sheet of Semtex explosives under a false bottom. Unbeknownst to Murphy, her fiancé, Nizar Hindawi, had intended to kill her and their unborn child along with the other passengers on the plane.

Unfortunately, the rise in terrorist assaults on Israeli public transportation, entertainment venues and public spaces necessitated that the airport security model be implemented in those areas as well — for one simple reason: it works better than anything else.
At the end of the article, Ha'etzni addresses the issue of whether profiling is consistent with democratic values.
Is profiling worth the resulting infringement on the democratic values of equality? Yes. After all, protecting human life is also a democratic value, perhaps the supreme one.

Random searches of grandmothers and congressmen may make Americans feel virtuous, but they don’t keep Americans safe. The attacks of 9/11 and the attacks on public transport in Madrid and London sadly demonstrate that Americans cannot afford feeling virtuous at the cost of human life.

Today’s terror threatens not only individuals’ security and lives, but is an assault on open, democratic societies as a whole. Terrorists use our society’s openness against us. Free, democratic societies must carefully balance our rights and responsibilities, lest we saw off the branch upon which democratic freedom sits.
Our own view is that profiling is quite acceptable if it has a rational basis. It’s one thing for a racist cop to harass a fellow simply because he’s black. But what about a street smart cop (perhaps a black cop) who knows perfectly well that a black male, with the dress and demeanor of this particular black male in this particular place at this particular time is likely up to no good?

We recently talked to a young white male who told us that a white male friend of his was driving a fancy car in a black neighborhood, and got stopped by cops. Assuming the cops (perhaps from long experience on the street) had a decent reason to suspect he was up to something, we are glad they stopped him. And he should have accepted the opportunity to explain to the cops what he was doing as the necessary cost of effective law enforcement.

We say this knowing full well that blacks in certain neighborhoods (and Arabs in airports) are more likely to get questioned. That’s not fair. But it’s less unfair than the alternative.

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