Profiling? Heavens, Not Us!

A few years ago, my wife and I traveled on the Eurostar train from Paris to London. When the train arrived at Waterloo Station (today Eurostar operates from St. Pancras), we disembarked with the other passengers and filed down a long walkway toward the terminal exit. A line of pillars ran down the center of the walkway, and standing with his back to the last of these pillars and inspecting the passing crowd was a gray-haired man in his mid-fifties. Our eyes met for the briefest of moments, and as I passed him I gave a little nod of recognition, a gesture he returned before turning his attention to those who followed me.

The encounter, if one can even label it as such, lasted no more than a second or two, but in that fleeting moment I recognized the gray-haired man as a plainclothes policeman of some sort, a detective from Scotland Yard, perhaps, or maybe an agent from MI5. And just as I recognized him for what he was, I’m confident he recognized me as an American policeman.

Yes, we had profiled each other. We each had used our experience and powers of observation to form an instantaneous opinion about the other. In that span of a second or two I had noticed him, sized him up, and recognized what he was doing there in the train station, all while he was doing the same to me. My wife and I went on our way, and the gray-haired man remained in his spot watching the arriving passengers for anyone who might invite further scrutiny.

When profiling is done properly, by trained and experienced men and women, it is most often no more intrusive than my encounter with that man in the train station. I doubt any of my fellow passengers gave the man so much as a thought as they passed him, even as he was forming his opinions about every single one of them. But occasionally there might be someone, besides the occasional vacationing policeman, who might be aware of the gray-haired man’s attention and indeed be discomfited by it a good deal more than I was that day at Waterloo Station: a drug smuggler, perhaps, a wanted criminal, or even a terrorist.

Profiling” is such a charged word these days, so freighted with images of people being singled out and inconvenienced at best or detained and even jailed at worst for no other reason than their membership in this or that minority group. But profiling is nonetheless a legitimate and effective technique for identifying people more likely than others to be involved in criminal activity or terrorism, and with the manifest failure of various government entities to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his incendiary skivvies from boarding a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day, it is a technique we should be less shy about embracing.