Why Profiling Is Necessary (If Its Done Right)

News Abroad

Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org.

In mid-November, Yusuf Suleman Motala, a Muslim leader in the United Kingdom said to be highly regarded and have a vast following, was at Heathrow Airport on his way to the lesser pilgrimage in Mecca. But British officers stopped him and Mr. Motala reports they asked him questions about the Islamic religion, the instruction at schools under his guidance, and his association with"jihadi groups." The resulting delay caused him to cancel his pilgrimage.

The Muslim Council of Britain responded with"outrage and shock" and demanded that such"profiling of Muslims" not recur.

Is this demand reasonable? What, in an effort to ferret out the enemy, is the proper place of profiling? For that matter, what is profiling?

In a just-published book titled Profiles, Probabilities, and Stereotypes (Harvard University Press), Frederick Schauer, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard, offers a thoughtful analysis of these questions. Mr. Schauer starts by offering terminology to discuss this subject.

  • A generalization is the process by which,"on the basis of a characteristic of some members of a class, we reach conclusions or make decisions about the entire class."
  • Spurious factors are those with no statistical import in reaching generalizations (i.e., the role of gender in predicting intelligence); nonspurious factors do have statistical importance (i.e., gender in predicting physical strength).
  • Prejudices are views based on spurious beliefs about a group.
  • Profiling is"a process of generalization, seeking to narrow the list of possible suspects by identifying an area of interaction among numerous generalizations."

The origins of profiling lie in the early 1950s, when the New York City police, hoping to identify the perpetrator who had set off more than 30 bombs, turned to a psychiatrist named James Brussel for help. Mr. Brussel reviewed the evidence and concluded that the bomber was a middle-aged Catholic of Eastern European extraction who once worked for the Consolidated Edison Company, lived in Connecticut, probably lived with his siblings, and had a serious heart condition. These and other details proved so eerily accurate to describe George Metesky, the science of profiling was born.

Profiling enjoyed high repute until it came out that police forces had simplified Mr. Brussel's elaborate construct and crudely focused on a single factor — race. This reductionism smacked of prejudice, and it had two harmful effects: race as a factor in profiles became taboo and profiling more generally was discredited.

Still, Mr. Schauer notes, profiling remains a routine and completely accepted way of doing business for many U.S. government agencies — so long as race is not involved. For example, a profiling program called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS) determines which passengers' baggage receives special scrutiny; it looks at such factors as gender, age, purchase with cash or credit card, time of check-in, type of luggage, and demeanor.

Beyond this,"Tax inspectors use profiling to target certain taxpayers for intense audits, customs officials use profiling to determine which arriving passengers warrant close scrutiny, occupational safety and health officials use profiling to decide which businesses to inspect, and police detectives continue to narrow the focus of their inquiries by constructing profiles of likely suspects."

What, however, if race turns out to be nonspurious? What, Mr. Schauer asks, if terrorists who bomb, hijack, or otherwise assault American airliners are"disproportionately younger Muslim men of Middle Eastern background?"

An effective profile, he emphasizes, must consist of dozens of elements, so including a Middle Eastern background means adding it to a long list of other features already in CAPPS, not making it the only or the decisive factor.

Mr. Schauer acknowledges that there is a"strong argument" in favor of including Middle Eastern background as a factor, yet remains ambivalent. He recognizes the high stakes involved and that many observers find it"obvious beyond question" that a Middle Eastern background must be taken into consideration; still, he wonders if it might be possible to avoid this by having passengers arrive a half-hour earlier at the airport, providing time enough to increase scrutiny of other profiling elements.

Mr. Schauer is one of the most sophisticated analysts of profiling and his endorsement of this practice, though qualified, carries real weight. It's time for governments also to explain the subtleties of profiling, justify its intelligent use, and proceed to take into account every nonspurious factor.

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Bill Heuisler - 1/7/2004

Dr. Chamberlain,
In my opinion we've reached a point in this discussion of reductio ad absurdum. Chaos and Prison are two extremes. Face it: in any ordered society totalitarianism is merely a matter of degree. Penthouse's option is Dr. Graham's license. US tradition strives always for maximum freedom.

Assume the trained personnel doing the detaining have been thoroughly schooled in both efficiency and in the US Constitution/Bill of Rights. Our Defense Bar has - for better or worse - enforced the BOR to all conceivable limits and no supervisor wants to be sued in civil court.

Mill's treatise on Liberty states "that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." So, for the purpose of this argument, forget moral imperatives and recall the purposes of civilized government and Western traditions embodied in Common Law. Apply your distaste of specific inquisitions to DNA testing, DUI roadblocks, quarantines, obscenity laws or IRS audits. This looms distinctly large in proportion, doesn't it?

Agree or not with Mill, ask whether we should refuse a statistical tool in order to protect one individual if, by refusing, we put society at dire risk? Our Hobson's choice must tilt toward survival. Unfortunately.
Bill Heuisler

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/6/2004

I think Shannon Parker's point about not questioning people "solely" on the basis of appparent ethnicity is far from simply being PC.

A fair portion of the Earth's population bares a superficial resemblance to Middle Easterners. We simply can't afford to question all of them. Someone has to meet other criteria before questioning is worthwhile, as Pipes argues above.

Bill Heuisler - 1/6/2004

Ms. Parker,
Please don't bristle at the term, potential crime-scenes, after all haven't the typical potential scenes in the US for terrorism been commercial airlines, airports and government buildings? Would you recommend we treat all places the same? We don't have the personnel and you (and I) wouldn't like the results if we did.

You are correct. I did not mean to suggest that the young men in my example were detained and/or questioned. A beat cop is, by definition, very familiar with the people and families in his beat.

You write, "However, questioning people based solely on their age, gender, religious affiliations and ethinicity seems like it goes too far." Do you really contemplate searching old ladies and infants in airports with the same diligence you would search young men? Face facts, we don't have the people or time to search everyone equally; we must use our experience to choose or resign ourselves to shutting down airports. In air travel it boils down to which is more important, PC or dead people.
Bill Heuisler

Shannon Parker - 1/6/2004

Hello. This is my first post, but I find the topic too intriguing to not post a short comment.

The original post about the man in the United Kingdom did not list an important fact and I would ask for clarification (if the thread has not gone too cold). What was the citizenship status of the man detained at the airport?

I should state that I am personally against profiling at the airport. My previous question regards whether the man detained is a citizen of the UK. Naturalized or not, if he is a citizen, then he should not be harassed or detained any more than any other citizen. I think, if a case can be made for profiling, and some of the previous comments did make compelling cases -- although I did bristle at the term potential crime-scenes, after all couldnt the case be made that potential scenes for terrorism are any public space? -- that the time/place for profiling is in the visa issuance or immigration process(es).

I would like to comment also about Mr. Heuisler's analogy of young men and afternoon robberies. The observation that "Police keep an eye on young men wandering neighborhoods in mid-afternoons" due to the statistical preponderance of their being the perpetrators of residential burglary seems, I would imagine, reasonable to most. But, by "keep an eye on", I am guessing that Mr. Heuisler did not mean to suggest that they were detained and/or questioned in any way. So, a teenage male walking around a neighborhood may warrant a second pass from a cruiser, but if there is nothing seemingly untoward about his behavior in that "potential crime scene", then the police have no right to detain him. My point being that if scrutiny means closer inspection of a person's credentials (i.e.- attempting to ascertain the validity of the documents), than I have no problem with it. However, questioning people based solely on their age, gender, religious affiliations and ethinicity seems like it goes too far.



Steve Brody - 1/3/2004

Awe, Chris, nothing like impling the existence of a conspiracy when you have no facts.

Bill Heuisler - 1/2/2004

Mr. Little,
Interest in the Anthrax case hasn't dwindled at all. Steven Hatfill, has been IDed as a "person of interest" by the FBI since early 2002. He was a scientist at Dietrich '97 to '99 and has been investigated thoroughly including searches, lie-detector tests, draining of lakes and lots of publicity about every aspect of his life.

As to your "homegrown rightwing perpetrator (who remains mysteriously unidentified to this day)" how does Hatfill become homegrown or right-wing if he's unidentified?

Political smears should at least be consistant.
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 1/2/2004

Ms. Wills,
Hope your holidays were happy and full of love.

Profiling. Perhaps it's a word problem. Maybe statistical evaluation is better. Of course profiling is reactionary in reaction to a crime. Law Enforcement uses statistics to narrow the suspect-pool in reaction to a crime where suspects aren't readily available - like armed robbery which, by definition, has witnesses/victims.

But statistics? Of course. Anything else is guesswork or throwing darts at phone books. For instance, residential burglary generally occurs between noon and six in the afternoon - the vast majority by teenage boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Get a burglary call? Don't look for women, Columbians in Cadillacs or emaciated middle-aged men. Look for boys with new toys who don't live too far from the crime-scene, or ask around the immediate neighborhood for sightings of cars/boys during the operative time. 95% of residential burglaries are cleared like this.

Police keep an eye on young men wandering neighborhoods in mid-afternoons. That's their job. Police don't, however, lock young men up because of their potential. Were we to arrest in general with no cause or purpose other than prevention, that would be unacceptable to any freedom-loving people. What would be the purpose? To lock up whole classes of people as potential suspects? Hitler and Stalin did this, but no one is suggesting we do it.

But we're reacting to crimes as I write. 9/11 was done by Middle-Eastern men trained in Afganistan, Sudan and Iraq. US Law Enforcement is being bombarded with threats, readily identified as from Middle-Eastern sources. What should they do?

For many years horrendous crimes against the US have been committed (with one exception) by young men from Middle-Eastern countries. Middle-Eastern young men should get extra scrutiny when they place themselves in potential crime-scenes. To do any less would be neglect of duty.
Best, Bill Heuisler

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2004

Josh, Clayton Cramer, of all people, points out the irony that the word "almanac" comes to us from Arabic. See: http://www.claytoncramer.com/weblog/2003_12_28_archive.html#107273124720570497. According to the OED, however, that derivation is by no means certain.

Chris - 1/1/2004

Well, let's not be too hard on the FBI for failing to find the perpetrator who poisoned a staff member of a newspaper that was pointing out the foibles of the Bush twins, the attempted poisoning of media personalities who had been slightly critical (telling the truth, occaisionaly) of George W. Bush or lawmakers who might obstruct the plans of George W. Bush.

I mean, who could see a pattern in behavoir like that?

And I'm sure the Justice department's investigation of the person who undermined U.S. security by leaking the identity of a CIA undercover operative in a completely petty personal vendetta will be just as thorough and complete as the anthrax investigation.

Frank Little - 1/1/2004

Thanks for this refreshingly sensible comment. Recall also how media interest in the apprehension of the anthrax terrorist disappeared virtually overnight once evidence began to point to homegrown rightwing perpetrator (who remains mysteriously unidentified to this day), rather than an Arab or Muslim.

Chris - 1/1/2004

How much profiling is there of ex-military or survivalist types who show a pronounced distrust of government? Absolutely none, of course. Despite the fact that the number two most horrific terrorist act in the United States was carried out by an "all-American" boy, there is no scrutiny of right-wing and racist oriented groups or individuals.

The Denver police "secret" files were rife with leftist/populist/peace-oriented groups and individuals, yet the truly dangerous groups and their membership remained curiously absent from the listings. No members of any anti-abortion group were on the list, but plenty of people who had opposed war were. There were no members of the Aryan Nations, the KKK, or similar groups on the list, but persons who had protested against racism were.

People who advocate profiling are usually those who favor profiling "them", whatever the current flavor of "them" is, so long as they don't in turn become suspects by association.

Profiling leads to cops busting black or hispanic people in older cars along I-95 for an ounce of marijuana while the Mercedes carrying 50 kilos of cocaine sails right past, cruise control locked on 55. Profiling leads to cops beating and abusing men of Middle Eastern descent in holding cells for no crime while Eric Rudolph lives free until he gets nabbed for dumpster diving. Profiling didn't catch Timothy McVeigh, being stupid and not wearing a license plate on his car did. Profiling did not catch the UNABomber, his brother turned him in.

When you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. When cops use a profile, they are sure to be constrained to look for only suspects that fit the profile. Cops are human and humans tend to get intellectually lazy. Profiles are perfect tools for getting intellectually lazy. Do you think that well-organized terrorists couldn't use the profiling to their advantage to camoflage who they are?

Josh Greenland - 1/1/2004

For all you fans of profiling:

FBI urges police to watch for people carrying almanacs

Marianne - 12/31/2003

I'm skeptical that profiling in the rank and file front lines of law and order can be practiced in a way that amounts to anything more than the bigoted targeting of certain races and ethnic groups--and to the exclusion of useful intelligence gathering and intervention.

But I'm also curious. The article mentions the profile that matched up with George Metesky--an eastern European Catholic. How much profiling of Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph "types" is there out there in force today?

Caleb - 12/31/2003

I think David articulated my feelings about why we look at Middle Eastern Men differently from North Koreans.

Just to add however, I would say that Islamic terrorists have said that they will try to attack us, and have said that they will try and use planes and other items. The North Koreans have not. Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that the North Koreans have either the resources, or the inclination to try and commit a terrorist act against the United States.

When Fidel Castro asked if he had anything to do with the assassination of JFK, he responded, "what am I, crazy? I have spent my whole life trying to prevent an American invasion, why would I do something that, if discovered, would ensure one?" At the risk of sounding like I am comparing Castro to Kim Jung Ill (I am not) the principles is the same.

I loath the idea of racial profiling and have disagreed with it in the past for all the reasons Oscar Chamberlain intelligently outlined in the first post on this site. However, I loath terrorism even more and if profiling is deemed the most efficient and effective way of stopping terrorism, I would support it. As a man who is not Arab but has sometimes been mistaken for one due to certain physical features, I would gladly accept increased scrutiny to feel safer when flying just as we all accept longer lines at the airport for the same reasons.

David - 12/31/2003

I disagree with it on the basis that it is reactionary, and is not used until after an event occurs.

No, what is "reactionary" is the CRITERIA of the profile. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. After the crimes are committed, the profiler arrives at a set of criteria based on who committed the crime, and who will likely commit the crime in the future. That allows us to focus our limited resources. Therefore, profiling is PREVENTION, not reaction. And until we have a Department of Pre-Crime, profiling is the best prevention we've got.

How many Middle Easterners were we targeting prior to the attacks that began in the 1990s?

Obviously not enough.

I have a concern about an attack, not just from Middle Easterners, but from North Koreans. Why? Because of our policies that target North Koreans.

Try to be logical. Unless you are an American GI stationed on the Korean DMZ, you have an illogical fear of profiling, and of N. Koreans. To say that because the government of N. Korea is run by madmen must mean the people of N. Korea are going to strap suicide belts on is silly, isn't it? The French also have a grudge against us, are you frightened of them too?

But I understand what you're doing. You know that you've cried wolf too many times about "racism", so you now try to couch your argument in logic. But your logic is so flawed, and your convictions so religious, that it's obvious we're just hearing more of the same political correctness.

David - 12/31/2003

Islamists have stated as their strategy to use the West's institutions against us. In this case, they will use our concern for individual liberties and the foolishness of political correctness to further their own islamofascist goals. The latest cry about "racial profiling" is just such a tactic.

In the war on terrorism, profiling by national origin and religion is common sense. Are we going to pay extra special attention to visa applicants from Madagascar when we know terrorists are from the Middle East? Are we going to surveill a Presbyterian church when we know mosques and madrasas are the recruiting ground for terrorism? Give me a break.

Yes, I'm familiar with all the usual and standard politically correct objections that fly in the face of the facts, but are we trying to stop terrorism or not? Are we serious about this or not? Wasting time searching a 12 year old girl, or surveilling grandma, when we should be focusing our limited resources on Saudi males (among others) is the height of political correctness taken to it's most looney conclusion.

Our resources are limited. We should use them as efficiently as possible. Profiling allows us to focus our resources.

David - 12/31/2003

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/30/2003

Wills has a good point: profiling only functions against known dangers from (relatively) known sources. We should not be so focused on one source of danger that we forget to look for others.

However, a reasoned approach to known dangers can free up resources to look for less known dangers. Profiling only produces a sort of selected blindness if all the resources are focused on that profile.

I think we keep coming back to this question: is a profile a good tool for investigation or a false tool that make people feel like they are investigating.

That depends on the accuracy of the profile, the training and intelligence of the agents, and the effectiveness of the management and oversight.

Again, I would argue that publicly acknowledged profiling would improve its use and its oversight.

C.R.W. - 12/30/2003

When 15 out of 19 people who fly planes into your buildings come from the same country, and you happen to notice that, that's not racial profiling. That's what I would call "minimally observant."

Anita Wills - 12/30/2003

I disagree with profiling, and not just because of the racial factors used. I disagree with it on the basis that it is reactionary, and is not used until after an event occurs. How many Middle Easterners were we targeting prior to the attacks that began in the 1990s? I have a concern about an attack, not just from Middle Easterners, but from North Koreans. Why? Because of our policies that target North Koreans. We are so focused on Middle Easterners, that we may be vulnerable to attacks from others who have a grudge against us. Even with Serial Killers we do not use a profile until victims have piled up. That is something that I find distasteful. We need to be wary of any solution that requires a body of evidence before it is used.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/30/2003

An interesting and, on the whole, good discussion of "racial" profiling. (I think "ethnic" would be the more precise term in this context.)

I do have a caveat, however. It is similar to that of the expert Pipes quotes. Bigotry against and unreasonable fear of middle easterners is part of our culture. It is going to be a part of the cultural makeup of the people who are utilizing these profiles.

This is what discredited including race in profiling before. Bigoted thinking--often unconscious--led people to take the well-conceived profiles and apply them in a destructive manner.

So the question is not, can the inclusion of race--or ethnicity--as one factor in profiling for tettorists be useful. The question is, can the people doing the profiling follow it carefully enough that, on the whole, profiling does a lot more good than harm.

In the end I come down on the side of openly using ethnicity as one of many factors in profiling. I do this not because I think that we can utilize it without doing harm but because I assume that the government is doing it now, even as it denies doing it.

Open utilization along with an open discussion of how this factor would be folded into other "nonspurious" factors would be a better situation in terms of rights.

"False positives" such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this article could be discussed and hopefully minimized. Also law enforcement/investigative people involved would have better incentive to talk about how they utilized profiles as opposed to the present situation, which encourages them to keep their mouths shut.