The Truth about Profiling

As I prepare to fly out of MSP again today, I dread the new full body scan, which I’ve been through twice.  I think I’ve determined that it’s the raising your hands above your head and being watched by scores — maybe hundreds — of people that is what makes it humiliating.  In any case, I don’t like it, though I haven’t yet opted for the pat-down.

In the midst of the hubbub surrounding these scanners and a new terrorist threat foiled in Oregon, I’ve been hearing lots about the pros and cons of profiling.  I have some experience with profiling.  I was a volunteer police chaplain for a suburban police department, and I had several conversations with cops about profiling as I rode along on their shifts.

What they told me, though they’d be reluctant to admit publicly, is this: Of course we profile.  Profiling, they’d say, is the only way to police with any kind of efficiency.  Being a cop is all about making judgments.  One of the most mundane is this: Who’s license plate should I run through the computer in my squad car as I sit at this traffic light?  (Yes, when a cop pulls up behind you at a light, s/he is most likely running your license through the state database.)

One cop put it to me this way: I’m trying to catch people with warrants, people who should not be driving; the bigger the warrant the bigger the bust.  When I see a rusted out beater full of Mexicans, it’s more likely that there’s a warrant for someone in that car than the doctor who’s driving a Lexus.

Now, I realize that some of you are seeing red right now, about to write a comment lighting me up for my racism.  But, A) I’m simply quoting a working cop, and B) I realize that white collar criminals exist, too.

My point is this: Cops have to make snap judgments all the time, and they do that based on their experience.  If they have more experience with a certain type of person involved in a certain type of crime then, of course, they’re more likely to pull that type of person over for an interrogation.

And I imagine that TSA agents are in the same position.  32 million passengers pass through MSP Airport each year, and that’s simply too many people for a couple hundred TSA agents to fully inspect.

I’m not saying it’s good or it’s bad.  I’m saying it isThey are profiling you as you stand in the security line, whether you like it or not.

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  • Tom

    There is profiling, and then there is profiling. Profiling is incorrectly applied when it ALWAYS happens to “a rusted out beater full of Mexicans.” Or when African-Americans are pulled over for seemingly minor traffic infractions (knows as DWB – Driving While Black – among African Americans). As long as police officers and TSA officials randomly check white people too – no matter what they drive – I’m OK with profiling.

  • Seems like you are justifying the truth of it. No doubt, we all make judgments as people. But I do remember you predicting last year that 2010 will bring newfound xenophobia toward Muslims, and you quoted the line:

    “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims.”

    What bothers me most about this thinking is that it simply isn’t true. Not only does it define terrorism as being anti-American, it also defines terrorism as an immediately violent act, usually involving a plane or a bomb. Timothy McVeigh did this, but beyond that, what about other, less immediate acts of terrorism, like cutting social programs, or the rampant effects of capitalism, or the terrorism American troops have conducted by committing 22 World Trade Center attacks in the form of 66,000 dead Iraqi civilians in a foreign invasion?

    What I’m getting at is, this is a contrived argument to begin with, I think. State sanctioned profiling wouldn’t be any different than cultural terrorism. So maybe we should, to paraphrase Jesus, profile the terrorism in our own culture before we profile the terrorism in another’s.

  • Jim

    Alex, if your definition of terrorism includes “cutting social programs,” then you’re talking about something entirely different than Tony, and most of the world when they use that term. We can’t have a useful discussion of terrorism if we use it to mean such wildly different things. TSA isn’t searching your underpants for an objection to social security.

  • Of course this is true: They are profiling you as you stand in the security line, whether you like it or not. I don’t think any opponent of profiling really doubts it for a second. But it’s an intellectually dishonest attempt to derive an ought from an is to imply that just because profiling happens whether one likes it or not, one has to like it after all, should accept it, or shouldn’t expend one’s energies in trying to make sure it stops happening. We haven’t abandoned objective morality altogether, have we?

  • Jim

    I understand what you’re saying, but the reality is, we have very little to fear in terms of terrorism. More people die from the flu every year than terrorism, yet the effects of “precaution” against terrorism far outweigh the risks.

    I read a statistic once. If there was a place flying into a building once a week, and you flew once a month, you would still have a 1 in 300,000 chance of being on a flight that flies into a building. The terrorism risk is far, far too played up in order to expand federal powers. As Rahm Emanuel once said, you never let a crisis go to waste, because they always open up the opportunity to do things you couldn’t have done before.

    Like full body scans.

  • Jim

    Alex, I couldn’t agree with you more. And that’s precisely why I think we should restrict the meaning of the word “terrorism” to what we all understand. If we apply the word to more and more, like cutting social programs, federal power will only expand more and more to “protect” us from it.

    But I’m right there with you. We have much bigger problems than planes flying into buildings. Full body scans is one of them.

  • Tony Jones

    I’m of mixed feelings, as I sit here in the terminal. One the one hand, I fear state sanctioned profiling. On the other hand, I want my flight to be safe. And on yet a third (!) hand, I know that the chances that my flight will be hijacked is 1 in 250,000,000 (that stat from the Washington Post). The chances of getting hit by lightning are 1 in 50,000. Time for us all to reel back from Orange Alert Level and realize that our hyper-vigilance is dehumanizing our society – then the terrorists win.

  • It’s pretty simple who the FBI says we should be watching out for when it comes to terrorism and who are our most dangerous threats. Look at the list:

    I say the TSA should their jobs, look out for suspicious people who fit the profile of the most wanted list and keep the lines at the airports moving. It’s simply common sense.

  • Hahaha…. did I just say “common sense” in reference to a government agency. Oooops. My bad. How silly of me.