Monday, August 01, 2005


To Profile or Not to Profile?

The British Transport Police say they are not going to waste time searching “old white ladies” on the London tube. Here in the New York metropolitan area, we still haven’t come to grips with that sort of austere truth.

I’ve seen plenty of white women and middle-aged business executives getting shaken down on the platform at Grand Central in the past two weeks. Mind you , they’re headed OUT of New York City at that point. At least we can be reasonably sure that any suicide attacks against the Greenwich train station by fanatic seersucker-clad private equity dealers have been thwarted.

Many of those inconvenienced could take solace today in The New York Times letters page where indignation against transit searches and the inevitability of ethnic profiling is running high.

Nathaniel Falda, a lawyer of some sort in Brooklyn, makes what must seem to him to be the most convincing case against stopping young male Arabs with heavy backpacks on the Times Square shuttle . . . it’s unconstitutional!

“The Fourth Amendment guarantees that people will be safe from “unreasonable searches and seizures” barring a show of probable cause.

Of course, providing for a common defense is right up there in the first line of the Constitution. It’s not some secondary amendment they tacked on afterwards.

It seems to me that searching the purses of elderly white women from Connecticut in the wake of deadly suicide attacks carried out by eight young Middle Eastern men with rucksacks is by definition “unreasonable.” Far more reasonable would be the immediate frisking of anyone who looked even vaguely like this guy:

Jeremy Ginges, a “social psychologist in the Roots of Terror Initiative at the University of Michigan” adds his clever observation:

Using rigid profiles based on ethnicity, gender and age may give terrorist groups an opportunity to bypass security by selecting attackers who do not fit the profile and are thus overlooked by security forces.”

Of course, there is no need to select any other sort of attacker than dark-skinned Sunni Muslim fanatics because right now we aren’t going to stop anyone fitting that particular profile.

Ginges is certainly right, rigid profiles are easily evaded. But no one is recommending rigid profiles. Just the opposite, in fact. Mindlessly searching every tenth person regardless of whenthe4r they are schoolchildren or pregnant women is both rigid and ineffective.

Phil Hall of Fairfield, Connecticut chimes in with a helpful reminder:

Let’s not forget that there were Muslim victims on 9/11 and in the London attacks.

I’m all for that if Phil Hall agrees to not forget that every single one of the attackers on 9/11 and in London were Middle Eastern men between the ages of 19 and 30 who subscribed to an extremist strain of Islam. In fact, he might want to give some thought to why so many of the victims of such similar looking Muslim extremists are themselves Muslim? I mean, if American hegemony is to blame for the seething rage in the Arab world, why are the seethers killing so many Arabs?

While Phil Hill wrestles with that conundrum, far from Fairfield and Ann Arbor there are real people riding real subways and trains everyday in real crowded cities like New York. What do those people think of ethnic profiling? Down on the IRT it was all wide-eyed suspicion the day after the second London attack. It’s not a great time to be a swarthy straphanger with a backpack these days.

My sense is that most people riding mass transit today are practicing their own ethnic profiling without regard to the Fourth Amendment. I might even go so far as to say that even young male swarthies would be relieved if they knew that everyone who looked like them were being searched.

After all, we’re a community, right? If you’re asked to sacrifice for the safety and welfare of the greater whole, it’s an honor not a humiliation.

The rest of us in the suburbs can enjoy the luxury of burying our heads ostrich style.