A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2010
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Currently, the United States does not use profiling in regards to airport security. True, there is a no fly list-a list that has included people who are obviously not terrorists (like American children and a well known CNN journalist) and has generally failed as  method of providing security.

It has been claimed that profiling is not used in the United States because of political correctness. While that might be true, some reasonable arguments can be given against profiling.

One argument is that profiling could be misused in order to target people for harassment on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, nationality and so on.  For example, suppose that Arabs were flagged as higher risk. This would allow security agents (like TSA folks) who do not like Arabs to harass them under the cover of these profiles (“I didn’t pull Abdul out for a special search because I hate Arabs, I did it because he fits the profile”).  This is, of course, the argument used against racial profiling by the police: it results in certain people being targeted more and also provides a cover for harassment.

This is a legitimate concern and is supported by the history of racial profiling in the United States.

Another argument is that  profiling is inherently unfair. After all, such profiles treat a person as a suspect based on factors such as ethnicity and religion rather than on the person’s actual actions. To, for example, pull all darker skinned people out of line for special screening because they have dark skin and let white folks go on through normally would be unfair. While profiling might result in increased security, it is no more justified than allowing the police to pull people over for DWB (Driving While Black).

While these arguments are well worth considering, there are also arguments in support of profiling.

In theory, it does seem possible for profiling to be an effective means of determining threats. After all, terrorists (and other threats) do not arise out of nothing. There are causal factors and other factors that would seem to be connected to such people. Also, there are factors that would tend to indicate that a person is not likely to be a terrorist or threat. To use an obvious example, an FBI agent travelling with her infant son is probably not going to try to take the plane down. In contrast, a young man from Saudi Arabia who is flying in from Yemen who spent a few years in Pakistan is more likely to pose a threat.

The profiling I will be arguing for is not just any sort of profiling. Rather, it is profiling based on proper research and statistical models. It also needs to be subject to rigorous assessment. I do consider the possibility that proper profiling might be beyond the capacity of today’s behavioral sciences and thus that at this time profiling might not be accurate enough to be justified as a security tool.

One argument in favor of profiling is that it enables a more effective use of resources. Rather than randomly pulling people out of line, people who are more likely to be threats can be subject to more attention. This would increase the likelihood that such threats would be caught. To use an analogy, rather than having the police just pull people over at random to check for drunk driving, it makes more sense to look for indicators of drunk driving, such as swerving about.

A second argument in favor of profiling is that it reduces the violation of rights and liberties. Under the current system, everyone is treated as a likely terrorist and subject to body scans or pat downs. With profiling, people who are more likely to be threats can be subjected to the more invasive means of checking.

It might be argued that singling people out would violate their rights. However, it can be countered that the current system is a greater violation. The current system is to treat everyone from the toddler to the grandpa as an equal threat. As such, if singling people out would be a violation, then it would seem that targeting everyone would be an even greater violation. To use an analogy, having the police randomly pull over any driver seems like a greater violation of rights than having the police pull over people who are most likely to be driving drunk.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is more unfair to single people out based on their being more likely to be a threat. After all, they are being treated differently than other people even though they might have actually done nothing to warrant such suspicion-that is, they meet the profile but are not actually a threat.

So, it seems to be a matter of whether it is better to treat everyone as an equal threat or to consider some people as greater threats based on profiling.

As noted above, there is also the open question about the effectiveness of specific profiling methods. It might be the case that the behavioral sciences are not up to the challenge of creating an effective system. It might also be the case that even an effective profile method might be misused enough or employed poorly enough to make it unjust or useless.

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47 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on November 27, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Profiling is the inevitable and rational result of trying to make limited resources handle a large task.

    It’s like dating; the better you know the general profile(!) of the people likely to give you what you want out of a relationship, the more likely you are to pick good dates–that is, assuming you use that profile.

    Everyone knows (or ought to realize) that this does pass over good dates and can still lead to bad ones, but that’s not a function of profiling per se, it’s a function of the random nature of not being omniscient–profiling is just optimization in light of that fact.

  2. magus71 said, on November 27, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I remember one time I pulled a guy over for speeding. He happened to be black, which I didn’t know until I got to his car. He accused me of pulling himover because he was black.

    I reminded him that it was Maine–the whitest state in the union (true). I also reminded him that 99% of the people I stopped were white. It never occured to him I guess.

  3. A J MacDonald Jr said, on November 27, 2010 at 9:42 am

    eI’ve written on this subject too . . . consider this: when police are looking for a suspect matching a certain physical description are they “profiling”? Doesn’t everybody profile anyway? Especially the US Border Patrol. The Islamic terrorism “problem” isn’t going to be solved by profiling or not profiling but by examining governments’ histories of state sponsored terror and their use of agents provocateurs . . .




    • A J MacDonald Jr said, on November 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

      PORTLAND, Ore. (11/27/2010) – Undercover agents in a sting operation arrested a Somali-born teenager just as he tried blowing up a van full of what he believed were explosives at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, federal authorities said. The bomb was a fake supplied by the agents and the public was never in danger, authorities said.


      • magus71 said, on November 27, 2010 at 12:26 pm

        It’s a good thing we keep catching these people. Our police are doing an excellent job.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on November 27, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Some wag pointed out that the same people who will not allow their food to be irradiated are OK with allowing themselves to be irradiated 🙂

  5. T. J. Babson said, on November 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

    It seems to me that we could use better biometrics as well as a passenger’s flight history to good effect. If someone has flown from New York to Washington 100 times in the last 5 years, the odds are against him blowing up the plane on the 101st flight.

    • magus71 said, on November 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

      biometrics would be excellent and we use them extensively in Afghanistan. we do iris scans and dna. every person taken into even temporary custody gets his hair plucked and his iris scanned. we sfind many ied makers this way and are able to identify people who show “randomly” in bad places. Show up too many times in a gunfight and suddenly it’s not a cooincidence anymore.

      not sure people would go for it. sounds too Orwellian to many, I’m sure. they’d make the slippery-slope argument, which is a fallacy and has been used as an argument against the current measures.

  6. magus71 said, on November 27, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Biometrics+Advanced Profiling+State Department NOT giving visas to terrorists (that’d be new) =no need for pat down.

    Let’s do it. I’ll start protesting on Facebook for profiling and to stop the politically correct non-sense. i suspect the liberal fascists will be against that though. Much better to just let bad Americans die.

  7. magus71 said, on November 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Some who read this blog may have to cover their ears and eyes; Fox News here:

    • Asur said, on November 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm

      Ralph Peters seems pretty spot on.

      Terrorism as it touches America is pretty much if not completely constituted by radical Islam…that just seems like a plain fact.

      Peters made a good point with the daylight and shadow face of our government’s response to these people: I think it bears reflection that it’s our ‘daylight’ response that’s shooting in the dark–I’m pretty sure the part of the U.S. government’s response that isn’t concerned with public opinion is dead on target.

      I’d like to see two things: 1) U.S. politicians and judges willing to put their careers on the line to enact focused, effective policy (sadly, the voting public, the greatest strength of a democracy, is also by far its greatest weakness…), and 2) non-radical Islam needs to clean its own house–we can detain or kill extremists all day long, but so long as the environment that’s creating them persists, there’s no end in sight.

      • erik said, on November 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm

        Before I started contributing here I saw some here write that the term “radical Islam” is essentially a redundancy, that most Muslims American or otherwise cannot be trusted. They say that if we read the Koran and understand it we must approach the religion and its followers as essentially wicked and dangerous.

        Yet today I hear the news from Oregon indicating that the “suspected” bomber was stopped in part because people in his own community dropped the dime on him :”. . .the F.B.I. received a tip from a Portland Muslim who was concerned about Mr. Mohamud’s increasing radicalism, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.”NYT One report I heard indicated the bomber himself assumes his relatives ratted on him. If we expect continued support from the Muslim community in the fight against radical Muslim terrorism, we’d best look at Muslims as we look at anyone we don’t know, white, brown, Christian, Muslim–with vigilant yet hopeful eyes.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

          Quite right. Non-radical Muslims have been very helpful in countering terrorism. This is not surprising since most Muslims want to live normal lives and would rather not live in a world full of violence. There is also the fact that the radical Muslims regard the moderates as their greatest enemy. Yes, they do hate the West, but they hate the moderates more. For the theory, check out Hobbes’ discussion of the battle of wits. For the current empirical data, check out the attacks launched my radicals against fellow Muslims.

          • WTP said, on November 29, 2010 at 1:16 pm

            Rumor is that he was turned in by his own father. It will be interesting to see if anyone else in the Muslim community was actively interested in sticking their neck out to stop him.

            • erik said, on November 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm

              I’m sure it was only one or two. Doesn’t that estimate fit what would be the likely percentage of good Muslims. . Of course, that’s about the same number as would likely turn in a potential nutcase in a white neighborhood. You know how often you hear the old excuse:” He acted really weird, but I never thought. . .” Maybe the (non-radical) Muslims and Christians are more alike than we’d like to think.

          • kernunos said, on November 29, 2010 at 9:18 pm

            ” There is also the fact that the radical Muslims regard the moderates as their greatest enemy. ”

            Can you verify this?

        • kernunos said, on November 29, 2010 at 9:17 pm

          ” Before I started contributing here I saw some here write that the term “radical Islam” is essentially a redundancy, that most Muslims American or otherwise cannot be trusted. ”

          Really? I do not recall past contributions the same as you.

          • erik said, on November 29, 2010 at 9:55 pm

            Go back to the discussions about the mosque in NYC>

            • erik said, on November 29, 2010 at 9:56 pm

              and about Islamophobia

            • kernunos said, on November 30, 2010 at 2:37 am

              Really? Someone actually said on this blog that Most american Muslims cannot be trusted or was that your interpretation?

            • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:16 am

              Read below and at the posts identified. Someone actually refused to say that most Muslims can be trusted. I interpreted that to mean that”Most american Muslims cannot be trusted “.

            • kernunos said, on November 30, 2010 at 3:36 pm

              Really, I don’t see it. Must be like you phantom racism here or you are into Yoga ’cause that is quite a stretch.

  8. kernunos said, on November 27, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Good thing we keep groping ould ladies and 4 year ould children.


    I can’t even figure out why this is something worth discussing here or anywhere. Why we aren’t profiling properly with the TSA defies logic.

  9. T. J. Babson said, on November 29, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    It is important to distinguish between “Islam” the religion and “Muslims” the actual people. It is perfectly possible to have a profound distaste for Islam without disliking individual Muslims.

    • erik said, on November 29, 2010 at 11:29 pm

      You’re making a new distinction here (and not a successful one) that you didn’t make in an earlier discussion with freddiek back on Aug21 @4:49p.m. (in “Is there Such a Thing as Islamophobia” (Aug. 16) and following comments– and In Aug. 20 “Defining Islam” (Aug.24).
      A small part of that post: “The question (s), again: In your world view, which Muslims go to the outer edge? How do we identify them? How many?”
      The word that recurred in that discussion was “marginalize”. How many Muslims do we marginalize because of our” profound distaste for Islam?” How many believers, Christian and Muslim, does Sam Harris marginalize because of his profound distaste for religion? Can we afford to marginalize major segments of a religious community when their role in fighting terror can be so important–see this recent attempted bombing–see the RAND study alluded to in that Aug 21 comment. See what you don’t want to see.
      Here’s an intriguing WSj article.
      Starts off by stating “Perhaps Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf really is a moderate Muslim. Yet if his words yesterday to the Council on Foreign Relations are any guide, he adheres to an orthodoxy even more defining than his brand of Islam: American liberalism.” OMG. A fucking liberal! And the article goes on to pretty much lay the responsibility for all the idiocy that has followed that attempt at bridge building (protests, threatened Koran burning, threats of Mosque destruction, etc.) at the feet of ,guess who, the fucking people trying to build the fucking bridge! The answer,we know, is not bridge building but violent reaction to attempted bridge building. That’s all that works. 1 Muslim turns in a bomber. I’ll like him and hate the rest, until they all turn one another in based on their “suspicions”. Is it 10% of those individual believers in Islam that you might dislike? Or more likely 90%? Oh my oh my how many do I marginalize.

      FYI kernounos: I keep track of these things using Google reader. You set up your folders, put a star behind the shit you find interesting, and it all goes into your “starred items” where it remains stored, for all practical purposes, forever.

      • magus71 said, on November 30, 2010 at 4:48 am


        have you read The Clash of Civilizations, by Huntington? If not, I think you should.

        How do you feel about Nazis? Can you make general statments that it (Nazism) tends to be a hateful mnovement that has a hard time getting along with others?

        How do you feel about Christians?

        • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 10:07 am

          Have you read the RAND report cited in the “Is there such a thing as Islamophobia” discussion?
          Seems like freddik was asking for a general statement about Muslims, not about radical Muslims (radical Muslims being more of a sensible equivalent to Nazis, wouldn’t you say?).
          As for Christians and Muslims (not radical Muslims, mind you) and quoting myself from above if I may: “If we expect continued support from the Muslim community in the fight against radical Muslim terrorism, we’d best look at Muslims as we look at anyone we don’t know, white, brown, Christian, Muslim–with vigilant yet hopeful eyes.”
          The q in the air at the other discussion seemed to be “How many good Muslims are we willing to marginalize with our “general” hatred of their religion?” “Radicalize” might be a better word than marginalize, tho I think the effects might be the same.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:58 am

        Here was one of my posts from August. Seems pretty consistent with my view above.


        I try to distinguish between the theology of Islam (which I frankly find extremely disturbing) and actual Muslim individuals (who I think we all agree are by and large nice people) and who should be judged as individuals.

        • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 10:14 am

          Do you have a date an time for that post so I can check to see if it’s all there? Sorry, just curious, since I see no quotation marks.

        • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 11:36 am

          Seems consistent with a lot of things. It came at the long tail end (Aug 26) of a nearly endless give and take over several articles and days between you and fk.–Aug 24 (Defining Islam)

          Aside: My grandfather found it easy to say some of his best friends were niggers. He agreed that “by and large ” niggers were “nice people”. Sure he did. kernunos: If you’re reading this, that’s how one gets an education in how to recognize a racist.

          I find the first 5 entries for that article particularly telling. Part of the reason I starred the article in my Google Reader 🙂

          • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

            Do you disagree that Islamic theology by and large dictates the death penalty for apostates?

            • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 12:34 pm

              I got the impression from that early discussion that Islamic theology dictates the death penalty for apostates. . . now it’s” by and large”.

              quickie from wik “Apostasy”i: “while some Abrahamic scriptures (Judaism: Deuteronomy 13:6–10) and Islam: al-Bukhari, Diyat, bab 6)[citation needed] demand the death penalty for apostates.”

              from that same wikipedia article: “It should be noted that the website Islam Online has an article by Jamal Badawi arguing against legal punishment of apostasy:

              * “The preponderance of evidence from both the Qur’an and Sunnah indicates that there is no firm ground for the claim that apostasy is in itself a mandatory fixed punishment (hadd), namely capital punishment.”[29] References to early capital punishment for apostasy were not due to apostasy itself, but rather other capital crimes that were coupled with it.”

              The Islam portion of this wiki article sheds a different light on the idea “that Islamic theology by and large dictates the death penalty for apostates.” Seems there are different punishments for males ( “execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;” [Surah Al-Maidah 5:33].” and females-“life imprisonment”.

              So let’s see: They’re “by and large good people”. But the by and large, if my cherry-picking of their scripture is accepted as readily as cherry-picked scripture from our Bible the punishment is not death. Punishment’s much more broadly distributed among a number of options for a number of individuals and situations.

            • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm

              “While mainstream scholars uphold capital punishment for apostates for Islam…”


              I don’t know how much clearer it can get.

            • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:54 pm

              Pretty lame cherry picking of the article. Why not continue with all the exceptions provided in the article? How many Islamic scholars are there in many? 15? 1000? 200000? I’m truly shocked that the article didn’t say “by and large mainstream scholars . . .” Really shocked. . .Geez! I’m going on vacation. Enough of this.

            • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm

              I used the term “by and large” because Islam has a number of schools of jurisprudence which claim varying numbers of adherents. All of the main schools agree that apostates should be put to death; no doubt there are small schools here and there that teach differently.

          • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

            And do you really want to argue that criticizing religious beliefs is akin to racism? So if I don’t like the Pope’s position on condoms I am somehow a closet racist? Is that really your position? Otherwise why mention your grandfather?

            • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm

              It was an “aside”–“a short digression”: Came to mind as I was thinking about the phrase “by and large” applied to a religion based on something that is, as the article from wikipedia on Apostasy would seem to indicate, is not necessarily as clear cut as “by and large” would indicate. What do you think?In the mainstream Muslim world– worldwide ‘and’ specifically the American mainstream Muslim world since that’s the group I’ve ‘been concentrating on- are 20% actually executed for apostasy? 40%? 60%? (now we’re getting to the place where “by and large” begins to take on some meaning and isn’t just a hedge —as it would be in my opinion in the 50’s range.

              After reading the number of exceptions to the death penalty do you still think “by and large” is a good choice of words? Or might it apply more to the more radical Islamists (just as some interpretations of our Bible clearly can be attributed to the more fundamenallist Christians)

          • kernunos said, on November 30, 2010 at 3:14 pm

            Yeah, erik, I couldn’t have figured that out on my own. Thanks.

  10. magus71 said, on November 30, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Should I be looking for 80 year ld women in car jacking cases?

    It bugs the vrap out of me that some can’t realize or admit that this war has been going on for 1200 years. Some things don’t mix very well. Making the argument that there are peaceful Muslims living in America ignores the millions that want to see America disappear. Sorry Leftists, but I think we’re worth keeping around.

    We’re not targeting Muslims that are peaceful. But we’re not looking for Shinto japanese 75 year old women with bomb vests either.

    • erik said, on November 30, 2010 at 10:07 am

      Some things don’t mix very well.This is a theme that has echoed throughout American history, no? “No blacks served here.” The reaction of a community to the influx of the new and “strange” (of whatever color, or religion). That’s the America we want to keep around. Not the “all men are created equal” America. That was the America Lincoln envisioned. The America the Framers seemed to have as their ultimate goal. A fiction?

      Is that “millions of Muslims living in America” “that want to see America disappear”?. Or did I misunderstand that sentence? Since the sentence starts out dealing with American Muslims and doesn’t make any further distinctions, I’ll assume I’m correct.
      So, should we generalize and get rid of them all? Do we want a process that radicalizes as few good American Muslims as possible or one that radicalizes the most (under the theory that once they’re all on the other side they’ll be easier to eliminate, I guess).

      Of course, an elderly Japanese woman can never be a radicalized Muslim with explosives in her hoo-hah. Nor can any white American teen.

      There are peaceful Muslims fighting in the US Army. They’re not all Hasans. (Presumed until determined otherwise) peaceful Muslim Americans in all walks of American life.


      minus the “Crime” section, of course 🙂

      • kernunos said, on November 30, 2010 at 3:33 pm

        Why the straw men erik? What Magus is saying is very logical.

      • magus71 said, on December 1, 2010 at 6:46 am


        If a Russian Orthodox Christian Sect which had thousands of adherrants declared war on the US, told us exactly how they would attack us, killed thousands of our people and continued to try to attack every weak spot the US has, I would hope that we would be looking a little more closely at Russians who belong to that sect. You can only divide your attention between so many objects. Maybe the Israelis should be looking for Canadians instead of Palestinians.

        Should a baseball player at bat pay attention to the blonde in the first row if he hopes to get a hit? No. He better profile. He should be looking for a little white ball hurtling at him at 90mph. It’s the same ball that keeps crossing the plate. He could of course tell himself that somehow, the blonde will help him to at least reach third base, but the metaphor is unlikely to help his batting average increase.

  11. […] the philospher’s blog, that is I think mildly progressive, a whole discussion was hosted on if profiling should be part of airport security and if so how. Admittedly the tone […]

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