Saturday, June 18, 2011

Racial profiling at airports?

The latest political correctness kerfuffle:

The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee said they want the head of the Transportation Security Administration to explain how racial profiling became a common practice among TSA screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) are both seeking answers from TSA Administrator John Pistole, after a federal report found several behavior detection officers, or BDOs, had singled out Mexican and Dominican passengers for special scrutiny, bag searches, questioning and document reviews in 2008 and 2009.

First this: I am utterly opposed to racism. MLK's dream expresses it best:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The question is this: is racial profiling racism? I think not, as long as the profiling is part of a rational evidence-based law enforcement protocol.

In the hunt for serial killers, racial profiling is routine. White men are much more likely to be serial killers than black men. Investigators focus on a data-driven profile of the suspect-- white, male, 30-50 years old, loner, previous brushes with the law, perhaps work experience in law enforcement, etc. The hunt for serial bombers (e.g. the Unabomber) is likewise based in part on racial profiling. Bombers are likely to be white men, often disgruntled loaners holding long grudges. The hunt for rapists is based on profiling as well-- not racial profiling, but profiling by sex, age, etc. (very few 80 year old women are rapists). Is such profiling sexist?

Ever wonder why it is that terrorism never seems to occur on Israeli airlines? After all, the Islamic anti-Semitic hate-mongers would love nothing more than to blow up a plane full of Jews. But for decades, the Israelis have taken an idiosyncratic approach to airline security: they screen primarily for people, rather than weapons. They screen according to appearance (including racial appearance), behavior, travel history, among many other things.

If you're a young Arab-looking man at Ben Gurion Airport, you are going to have a talk with security. The upside is that, when you get on your flight, you'll arrive at your destination alive. Good security is good for everyone, even for the innocent people profiled by it. Innocent young Arab-looking men die in terrorist attacks, just like everyone else.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable federal searches and seizures. The Fourteenth Amendment applies the 4th Amendment upon the states. Reasonable searches are not prohibited.

Law enforcement has finite resources, and they must do their life-saving work with substantial constraints. They can't (and shouldn't) investigate everyone. Profiling for all sorts of traits is routine and necessary in law enforcement. Police would catch few armed robbers if persons of interest included pre-schoolers.

Profiling by race should be as legal and as routine as profiling by sex, age, place of residence, behavior, etc, as long as there is clear evidence that race is a risk factor in the criminal behavior being investigated.

Racial profiling without evidence of risk is indeed racism and is unconstitutional and reprehensible.

We need good police work and good airline security. That is good for everyone, for the innocent person subjected to evidence-based profiling no less than for everyone else.

In the age of al Qaeda, political correctness is deadly.


  1. isnt all racial profiling based on judgement alone? you dont have any evidence that a arab man has done anything wrong in an airport, but profiling (assuming he is guilty of a crime because of the way he looks) him into further questioning makes sense?

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