Why profiling is such a bad idea

An email purporting to show why we should embrace profiling in order to combat terrorism just got my dander up. Let’s just call a spade a spade, shall we?

I recently received one of those dreaded “opinion” chain emails, this one supporting government profiling in order that we might somehow be safer from the dreaded terrorists. The email presented 15 select examples of barbarism by Muslim male extremists of a certain age. Surely we’re not expected to believe that these 15 examples represent an accurate sample of all the acts of barbarism occurring in the world today (or, for that matter, during the 40 years the email drew from). The email decried: “Nope, I really don’t see a pattern here to justify profiling, do you? So, to ensure we Americans never offend anyone, particularly fanatics intent on killing us, airport security screeners will no longer be allowed to profile certain people. They must conduct random searches of 80-year-old women, little kids, airline pilots with proper identification, secret agents of the President’s security detail, 85-year old Congressmen with metal hips, and Medal of Honor winners and former Governor Joe Foss, an American WWII hero.”

Wow.

Here’s why that’s not such a great idea:

Profiling creates a class with protected status. In this new America, it’ll be good to be an elected government official, or someone with proper identification, an employee of the state, a medal winner, or a hero of the motherland.

Profiling is an new name for an old trick. What is profiling, and how exactly does it work?

Profile: an analysis (often in graphical form) representing the extent to which something exhibits various characteristics.

What makes a profile an accurate measurement? Most importantly, a “profile” must be adequately discriminant, in that there must be evidence that a measure of a construct is indeed measuring that construct. So, since profiling is based upon the idea of discrimination, I will go ahead and call it what it is: Discrimination.

By the definition in the email, the discriminated class consists of Male, Muslim Extremists between the Ages of 17 and 40. Let’s examine this definition in order to ensure that we have a workable measurement.

How can we test for “extremist”? Unless they’re wearing a note from their Imam, we probably can’t. And extremists come from every corner of society. Not to mention that extremism ranges from violent acts to just extremist thoughts. So, lop that off the discrimination test. It’s impossible to test for.

So what do we have as our working list of discriminants: Male, Muslim, between 17 and 40.

Let’s tackle gender. Relatively easy, unless they’re dressed in hijab, which would make them look like a muslim woman. Maybe we should expand the discriminated class to include women. The Israeli’s would agree to that, seeing that female Palestinians are blowing themselves up there.

Our working profile now: Muslims between 17 and 40.

Age? Okay, but that would have to be a visual thing, since it’s reasonable to presume that extremists might forge their documents (that means we can’t trust members of the protected class who have traits of the discriminated class. Sorry, muslim war heroes with proper documentation). And now, upon a closer reading of your email, I notice the age discriminant varies between “17 and 40” and “mostly between the ages of 17 and 40″. So, we probably should just eliminate age as a decriminant altogether, or else we’ll have these nasty surprise attacks.

So, we’re left with “Muslim” as our working list of discriminants.

How in the world can we determine what a Muslim is? Probably only by appearance. Beards? Head-wear? Hmmm. They might wise up to that and shave or take off the towel. Tricky Muslim Extremists. Guess we’ll have to go with skin color and facial features. We could go with Country of Origin, but they might get smart and come through Mexico. Hey, that’d give us reason to close the border, plus, we wouldn’t have to scrutinize so hard, because Mexicans are brown too.

Gosh, this would be so much easier if we could force those in the discriminated class to wear some sort of identification.

So, there we have it. Our final discrimination test (okay, I’ll stop. Let’s call it a “profile”). Our profile is “brown skin with beards or head-wear of religious significance, or not beards, or not head-wear. Just brown”.

Well, that definition includes a lot of people. No matter, you’re white. You are a defacto member of the protected class. Phew, that’s good, seeing as how frustrating it is to risk being in the 2% of airline travellers who are randomly searched.

You know, it would be far easier to set up a national registry for brown muslims. Or just muslims. Or brown people. Whatever. But registering all muslims would allow us a greater measure of safety, since the problem seems to be exclusively a muslim one. Then, we could really take care of the problem. We’d finally have a solution.

We could start out by restricting their travel, and then we could restrict their ability to do business, so that they can’t fund their nasty plans. So as not to be too extreme (that might offend the delicate sensibilities of “those” Americans), we could still allow the brownies to travel, but they’d have to have their own airports and fly on their own airplanes.

Isn’t it weird how the one true measure of danger, the “extremist”, no longer exists in our profile, but our profile seems like that of an extremist?

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