Airport Security and Racial Profiling

If found this post in my “drafts” page from when I first started this blog.  I guess I’d forgotten to press “publish”.  Anyway, given the recent changes in airport security measures it seems serendipitous that I found it now… 

Wednesday January 27 2010

First of all, I obviously wasn’t able to comply with my new schedule. Band rehearsal ended up being post-poned for 30min but I didn’t know how long it was going to actually be when I started waiting. One of the guys in the band had to do a media interview so we couldn’t start until it was done. Usually they like to do several takes so the duration of interviews is always unknown. While waiting I practised my stick toss. Then I was supposed to do a “meet and greet” after rehearsal, so I got ready and waited…and waited. I guess it got cancelled because the next thing I heard was 20min to curtain. Maybe tomorrow will go according to plan…HA!

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets all huffy about what I’m going to write, I want to say that this is a thought experiment. Policies that I find logically compelling I have trouble with on other grounds. Besides, this is my blog, and if you don’t like it, go write your own! (or leave me angry comments…as you please!) One more thing: please feel free to exchange the word “freedom fighter” with “terrorist” depending the side for whom you feel the most political sympathy.
I listened to a really interesting interview on my favourite podcast “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe”. It was about racial profiling for airport security. Although I’m not an airport security expert (big shock, I know) I’d always leaned toward racial and geographical profiling in this context. I know, I know, racial profiling is not something one should publicly support unless you are spend your afternoons in rocking chairs swatting flies and telling any newcomers to your neighbourhood “we don’ like yur kahd ’round here”. However, in the context of airport security there seems to be an intuitively strong case for it. If a given group that is identifiable racially and/or geographically openly declares that they will attempt acts of terrorism against you, does it not make intuitive sense to screen people that fit this profile a little more carefully than others? I know it’s not fair for the innocent majority members of this group to be screened more that non-group members but who said security had to be fair?
The interviewee was an international airport security expert and he asserted unequivocally that racial profiling does not work for airport security. Airport security is much more effective when secondary screening is random. Apparently, this isn’t even a debate amongst security experts. That’s food for thought. The reason racial or geographic profiling doesn’t work is because the terrorists already know what security is looking for, so they will send someone who doesn’t meet the profile. For example, when Chechnian terrorists blew up two planes both bombers were women. The terrorists knew that Russian security rarely gives secondary screening to female passengers, so the obvious thing to do was to recruit women. Security will never see what it is not looking for and it is not difficult for the freedom fighters to know what airport security is looking for. When secondary security screening is done randomly, there is no way for the freedom fighters to anticipate who will be screen and on what grounds.
Basically, the way airport security operates now, almost by definition, cannot work because they are always fighting the last battle. When terrorists knew that shoes wouldn’t be screened, they put da’ bomb in da’ shoe. When carry-ons were screened for solid explosives, the terrorists used liquids. When security started screening shoes, terrorists put da’ bomb in da’ underwear, and so on.
According to the security expert the solution is to take the resources (money and people) that are being wasted in “security theatre” and put it it intelligence gathering and the training of all airport employees to be able to do security interviews and learn to recognize suspicious behaviour. When it comes to profiling, behaviour profiling will yield better results so airport employees should be trained to be able to profile based on behaviour.
Why am I writing about airport security? A couple of reasons I guess. First is that I travel a lot so I directly suffer the consequences of onerous airport “security”. Second, prior to listening to the interview I thought that racial profiling for airport security made sense from a logical point of view, although I was never quite comfortable with it’s unintended side effects. Listening to the interview showed me my logic was flawed and I learned something new. Contrary to many people I actually enjoy when a belief I hold is methodically disproven with evidence. I like the feeling I get when I can discard an erroneous point of view. Third, I wrote this as a practice for when I’m back in school and I have to be able to assimilate and reproduce what a professor has said during a lecture. Finally, I thought that I there may be a chance that I am not the only one in my circle of friends who isn’t a security expert and might also benefit from listening to what an expert has to say on the topic.
In the end, however, I agree with the security expert’s arguments for measures that would lead to actual airport security but regarding racial profiling I’m not entirely convinced that it needs to be discarded entirely. I agree that racial profiling on it’s own is not the best security method but I’m still unsure why his method would have to exclude racial profiling. I still think that from a purely logical point of view, in cases where there is a racially and/or geographically identifiable group that overtly promises to attempt terrorist acts, there is a reasonable case for profiling. Here’s an grossly oversimplified example to illustrate the principle: Imagine you lived in a country where everybody had 5 eyes and there was a country of people with 3 eyes. A group of people from your country, because they harbour grievances against the 3-eyed people, openly declare on behalf of all 5-eyed people (but without consulting you) that they will attempt acts of violence against 3-eyed people. Would it not be reasonable for the 3-eyed people to regard any 5-eyed person with suspicion? How can the 3-eyed people reasonably discern who are the terrorists among the 5-eyed people in their airports? I suppose they could conduct lengthy interviews with each passenger, regardless of the number of eyes: it would be effective and fair, but security wait lines would take even longer than now. Or you can just secondarily screen all people with 5 eyes.
It sounds good in the over simplified example and establishes the principle but racial profiling on it’s own might not translate too well in the complex real world of US airport security. First of all, there are several examples of home grown, white terrorists (McVeigh, Unibomber), so if you are only secondarily screening Arabs, the home grown crazies can easily slip through. Also, and this may come as a shock to most of you, but Americans are largely ignorant when it comes to distinguishing between Hindus, Arabs, Israelis, Turks, and other darker skinned people or knowing who their political allies are. An Israeli friend of mine that I work with told me a funny/sad story that happened shortly after 9/11. He was talking to a group of girls who were either in the military or who’s husbands were in the military. They asked him were he was from because he has an accent. When he told them “Israel” one of them yelled “you better get the fuck away from us before I try to kick you ass”! Yup, somehow the “subtle” political distinction between the Israelis and Arabs escaped her keen military mind….(by the way, for my American friends reading this—as defined by the state department, the Israelis are your friends!) Anyway, you’d probably have better luck training airport security personnel methods of behavioural profiling rather than trying to undo a life time of ignorance 🙂
So, where am I going with all this unnecessary rambling? I’m not sure. Maybe something like this: scanning bags, shoes, etc.. has benefits, but by itself it’s not the best solution. It probably acts more as a deterrent to the average crazy person than to the well organized, highly motivated terrorist. Behavioural profiling and intelligence gathering are the security expert’s methods of choice but it’s going to be years before current staff are adequately trained and intelligence networks put in place. Racial profiling is far from perfect but if there are members of an identifiable group that overtly announce their violent intentions, it is not unreasonable to check people that fit the profile.
As one of my heros, Mark Crislip says, please post your comments and hate mail below, I’d love to hear from you”!

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