Airport Profiling

In light of yet more rules and restrictions on what can be brought on airplanes, many of us are probably wondering how far things will go. The current ban on liquids seems to me excessive--although the UK's response, banning carry-on luggage almost entirely, is even worse.

While any more successful terrorist attacks would be unacceptable, we let the terrorists win if we totally surrender our freedoms out of fear of relatively unlikely events. A balance must be struck between security and convenience.

This thus brings me to the issue of racial/religious profiling. On the left, this is typically dismissed without thought. Certainly there are enough cases of abuse among police forces to have put the practice into general disrepute. But, putting aside fallacious slippery slope concerns, is there a case to be made for using profiling in airport screening?

I'll begin by admitting that this practice probably already goes on to a great extent. In a sense, the question I'm asking is, should we look the other way when this goes on? I'm not a legal scholar, so I'll leave aside constitutional concerns (a case could be made that it violates the 4th and 14th Amendments). Instead I ask, what kind of profiling (if any) is (morally) acceptable in airport screening? Could such profiling be a substitute for other draconian measures that unnecessarily inconvenience us all?

Beginning directly with the most controversial case, race, I would argue that race alone should be insufficient. For one thing, being swarthy, olive-skinned, or more generally "of Middle Eastern appearance" (OMEA) is fairly common. Some southeast Asians, Hispanics, and even Southern Europeans can be OMEA. Nor is there any guarantee that a terrorist will be distinctly OMEA himself. So let us set aside race for now--it's probably better to do this anyway.

Certain types of profiling I think no one would object to. Passengers who buy one-way tickets, in cash, the day of their flight would rightly be subjected to scrutiny. Terrorists also don't typically travel with their wives or children--and are predominantly male, for that matter.

However, looking out for these signs would also be insufficient unto themselves. If terrorist organizations learn that certain things are being looked for, they can always adapt. How much harder would it be to buy round-trip tickets in advance, for instance? Similarly, attacks in Britain have shown how terrorism can come from native-born individuals as well as from foreigners. There are large enough populations of Muslims within the UK and the US for terrorist recruiters to draw from.

What then of specifically religious profiling? Surely this is something that all members of al-Qaeda have in common? Setting aside the fact that the vast, vast majority of practitioners of Islam are not terrorists, it would seem relatively easy to lie about such a thing.

As I ponder this issue further, it seems to be intractably complex. Even if we could compile a specific profile of hijackers, it's clear that there will always be difficulties. For starters, it's unfair to the majority of members of whatever demographic group who are peaceable, law-abiding citizens. Second, it's not so hard to work around such profiles.

Of course, these are criticisms of a more practical nature. The question is, if it were possible to produce a relatively successful profiling program, would it be right to employ it?

Then again, maybe asking such a question masks a crucial part of the enterprise--in the asking of such a question, we fall into the danger of overlooking the very real abuses that are likely to accompany such a practice. More generally, I'm inclined to believe that epistemic concerns can have an impact on the justifiability of certain practices. By way of explanation, let me draw upon two relevant examples.

First, there is the question of torture. Advocates are quick to point to something like the ticking time-bomb example, in which a terror suspect holds the key to stopping the death of millions, but must be tortured to extract said key. The problem with this scenario is that it constructs an ideal situation that we could never know that we were in. Even if we're pragmatic about justification, and settle for plausibility over certainty, we still run into significant problems. False bomb threats are not uncommon, suspects are often mistakenly apprehended, and the reliability of information garnered through torture is itself dubious.

Another example of this is the (original) justification for the Iraq War. The claim was made that Iraq had WMDs that posed a significant enough threat for us to attack them preemptively. At the time, I made an argument to the effect that such unprovoked military action requires a high threshold of certainty to be justifiable. Even if the Bush administration believed that Saddam had WMDs, they were in the wrong ethically if their belief was not adequately justified.

In the aftermath, it's clear that doubts were suppressed and dissenting assessments stifled in such a way that, even if Bush & Co. didn't explicitly lie, they are still morally culpable for wrongly believing something on insufficient evidence. Ordinarily, we don't hold people responsible for ignorance, but in a case such as this one (in which we had to take them at their word since the information they judged from was classified) different standards apply.

Returning to the example at hand, I would argue that efficacy considerations cannot merely be sidelined. If we could be sure that profiling would prevent some terrorist attacks, I would support it on consequentialist grounds. But efficiency is an empirical question, although one especially difficult to assess in this situation. While it may be possible to measure the number of plots thwarted, it's impossible to measure the number of plots that were entirely prevented. No terrorist attacks could mean a successful set of programs, but it could just be dumb luck.


If I draw one conclusion from this, it's that there is no easy answer to fighting terrorism. There can be no question of simply replacing the ban on liquids with more aggressive profiling. If our motivation for wanting to target specific groups is to reduce the inconvenience to most of us, who pose no threat, the question of implementation complicates the issue, drowning out common sense pleas of "But I'm no terrorist--why can't I bring my hair gel?"

Really, I have a lot of trouble thinking about this set of issues. Although I don't find it nearly as wrong-headed as the "War on Drugs", the "War on Terror" leaves me somewhat ambivalent. The Muslim world has some legitimate grievances with the West. Sometimes I wonder if what we're trying to protect includes advantages that we're not entitled to. Why should the US get more oil than anyone else?

Above all, I am reminded that terrorism is a problem that cannot be fought primarily with law enforcement and military action. Whether it's giving up cheap oil and global military superiority or losing the luxury of being able to fly with toothpaste, sacrifices must be made. The American way of life is ultimately unsustainable; it persists today only at a huge cost to the poorer parts of the globe.

1 comment:

Nathan said...