Race, profiling, and airport security

Wow! A whole bunch of folks have picked up the creepy suggestion from Representative Peter King advocating racial or ethnic profiling at airports! First (surprise!), the Missoulian advocates the policy! And so does columnist Kathleen Parker!

I feel icky. You already know why I don’t think racial profiling doesn’t work. Don’t mistake my opposition for racial profiling as satisfaction with the status quo on airport screening. My views on racial profiling is one of those (rare?) occasions where my beliefs coincide with practical solutions. And while I am againt racial profiling, yesterday I neglected to mention that non-race-based profiling does work, and that it may be a good idea to make it stricter.

Once again, let us turn to Malcolm Gladwell, this time in an essay called “Safety in the skies.” First he explains that increasing the strictness of passenger examination won’t improve security because it’s already pretty effective. That is, the actual attempts to smuggle weapons through the screening process will be so clever and innovative and infrequent that screeners won’t be likely to catch them:

The challenge of detecting something like a knife blade is made harder still by the psychological demands on X-ray operators. What they are looking for—weapons—is called the “signal,” and a well-documented principle of human-factors research is that as the “signal rate” declines, detection accuracy declines as well. If there was a gun in every second bag, for instance, you could expect the signals to be detected with almost perfect accuracy: the X-ray operator would be on his toes. But guns are almost never found in bags, which means that the vigilance of the operator inevitably falters.

According to Gladwell, the best way to catch terrorists, then, is by profiling passengers:

What we ought to do is beef up security for a small percentage of passengers deemed to be high-risk. The airlines already have in place a screening technology of this sort, known as CAPPS—Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System. When a ticket is purchased on a domestic flight in the United States, the passenger is rated according to approximately forty pieces of data. Though the parameters are classified, they appear to include the traveler’s address, credit history, and destination; whether he or she is traveling alone; whether the ticket was paid for in cash; how long before the departure it was bought; and whether it is one way. (A recent review by the Department of Justice affirmed that the criteria are not discriminatory on the basis of ethnicity.) A sixty-eight-year-old male who lives on Park Avenue, has a fifty-thousand-dollar limit on his credit card, and has flown on the Washington-New York shuttle twice a week for the past eight years, for instance, is never going to get flagged by the CAPPS system.

Profiling could be improved, say, by allowing airline passengers to provide more personal information to a government database – Social Security number, bank account into, etc. For those concerned with privacy, it could be a voluntary program. Those that decline should have to go through more strict screening.

Of course, there’s danger in profiling, too. Already, reports claim that some air marshals have been given quotas to put people on a database of suspicious persons. Some groups worry that political affiliation or activity – such as blogging? – might label an innocent person as a security risk. Who trusts the government to do the right thing in these times?

But the bottom line is that profiling works.

The chief distinction between American and Israeli airport defense, at the moment, is that the American system focusses on technological examination of the baggage while the Israeli system focusses on personal interrogation and assessment of the passenger—which has resulted in El Al’s having an almost unblemished record against bombings and hijackings over the past twenty years.

Profiling by race is not only ineffective, but it stirs up hostility and suspicion against those of the suspected race. That’s divisive, hateful, and racist.

Update: Others have found the Missoulian’s editorial repulsive, too. Matt Singer mocks the editor’s ability to sense race and religion in airline passengers. Pogie reacts to the newspaper’s cowardice and the absurdity of comparing racial profiling to affirmative action. Shane reacts to a letter penned to the Helena IR demanding racial profiling. Ed Kemmick ponders the issue as well in the proscribed, “objective” manner.

I’m not surprised members of the lunatic fringe are demanding all Muslims and brown-skinned people submit to ineffective searches that only serve to isolate and humiliate them. That’s racism 101: find a minority to pin all your fears and hatred on. But the Missoulian?

  1. Martin L.

    The solution is to get rid of all airport security and establish raghead-only flights. The entire crew and passengers would be all ragheads. Flights would only run between certain cities at certain times. Each raghead-only aircraft would be divided in half, so the men could sit in front and the women could sit in back. Additionally, each raghead-only aircraft would be wired with high explosives that could be remotely detonated by any air traffic control facility if the flight wandered off course, just in case the ragheads decided to hijack their own aircraft and fly it into some building.

    Of course, the airlines would have to charge the ragheads a little more for a ticket to make up for the lost profits from in-flight movies and liquor sales, but that would not be discriminatory.

    Under this proposal, no security would be necessary for anybody—no baggage checks, no metal detectors, no profiling—nothing. America could save a fortune, and everybody would be much happier flying with people who looked and smelled right and spoke some intelligible language.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Martin L. You and your other identities (?) or friends (?) only confirm that racism fuels the call for racial profiling.

  3. This post EXACTLY mirrors my thoughts on racial or ethnic profiling. It’s a waste of time – it doesn’t work and it only alienates a certain group.

    I think some people are just running scared because of all the terror alert nonsense and the impassioned “islamo-fascism” speaches by certain world leaders. And it’s very comforting to believe in an easy solution to a complex problem, and this is why some people are so eager to jump on the profiling bandwagon.

  4. I agree. What’s easier than blaming everything on skin color? Sure it’s arbitrary, but all you need to do is glance at a person. No need to spend all the time getting to know them…

  1. 1 Malcolm Gladwell on health care « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] As my regular readers no doubt know, I am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I quoted him liberally concerning the ineffectiveness and harm of using racial profiling for airline screening – in which Gladwell made the point by talking about our prejudice against dog breeds. Well, he’s also a crack observer on our system’s health-care woes. […]

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