January 26, 2005

Hands Off Those 80-Year-Old Adventists?

Gary Becker does a riff on ethnic profiling. Assuming limited resources, do we overselect, say, young Muslim men, in airport security lines? It would seem that because there have been incidents around the world involving young Muslim men seizing and destroying planes, as compared to say, aged Adventist females, one would want to oversample young Muslim men.

To this there are a few objections:

  • It will just lead to a handoff of terrorist tasks to, say, Muslim women, or apparently non-Muslim decoys.

  • There are already non-Muslims who would commit terrorism, Timothy McVeigh, for example.

  • This kind of profiling is so inconsistent with our values and message that it's beyond the pale. Moreover, oversampling a target group might recruit more terrorists than it catches, and anyway, it doesn't pass the all-important smell test that tells sensitive civil libertarians that we are on the slippery slope to Kolyma or Dachau.

None of these objections holds water.

Oversampling one group does not mean failing to sample others, and the sampling protocol can be unpredictably varied, or varied to reflect experience. A "pregnant" woman terrorist in a burka shouldn't be able to escape scrutiny a second time.

Moreover, if more than one group is suspect, then more than one group must be oversampled. If we have to, we can oversample rootless military dropouts and young Muslim men.

The third objection, that oversampling any group (especially a group traditionally subject to discrimination, such as young black men) offends our basic values or threatens to mobilize more terrorists than it catches, also does not hold water.

Although oversampling a defined group does not involve "probable cause" in the legal sense, it approaches "probably cause," if properly based on the data. There seems no reason other than political correctness to give our 80-year old Adventist woman an equal chance of being chosen for extra scrutiny than Abdul from Egypt, who's a "student" in Florida, traveling on a one-way ticket from Orlando to Minneapolis. Of course, all these activities should be conducted professionally and politely, even if we know they sometimes won't be.

But if in the wake of 9/11, 3/11, the Cole, the Khobar towers and all the rest, it seems to me only suicidal nutcases would give Abdul a free pass, while groping our Adventist's undergarments searching for Semtec.

Certainly when it comes to non-citizens, I feel no compunction other than concern for the tourist Euro, for closely questioning certain types. And even citizens will recognize that if a bank is reported robbed by a 5 foot 10 inch, 60-is man with blue eyes and a limp, silverbacks of that description are fairly in for some scrutiny.

"Tough titty," said the kitty, when the milk had run dry.

I hope Becker and Posner will forgive my irreverence, and recognize my comments as seriously intended notwithstanding my 60-ish, limping attempts at humor. These guys are serious thinkers, and I salute them the best way I know how -- by commenting on their ideas.

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