'Profiling' Is Not a Dirty Word

I recently wrote here about constitutional limitations on the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) strip and grope procedures. They subject us to the sorts of governmental control the Constitution was intended to prevent and violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions in ways highly up close and personal. Some illumination, albeit indirect, is shed by the Supreme Court's 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the essence of which is that a search of one's person must be reasonable and no more intrusive or degrading than the circumstances mandate. Searches shocking to ordinary human sensibilities fail to meet that test.

President Obama, whose public approval has reached a new low of thirty-nine percent, and his administration are under fire and are

belatedly grasping the political liabilities from the TSA screening uproar, but seem to have few options in dealing with the problem.

The new talking point word from the White House on the controversy is "balance" -- with the suggestion that the Transportation Safety Administration would keep the same policies but look for ways to demonstrate more sensitivity. ...

The consensus in the administration seems to be that the Department of Homeland Security didn't do a good enough job of getting out in front of this story and communicating to travelers. This is the default position for the administration when political troubles arise: The product was fine, but the marketing was poor.

That seems pretty lame, and highly disruptive protests are likely and even a few protesters could be very disruptive. Some municipal officials are rebelling. It is not because of poor marketing. TSA Administrator Pistole stated that "not many people could have predicted" the latest outcry. That speaks poorly about Mr. Pistole's ability to be proactive as well as his apparent perception that the American public is docile, eager to obey, and easy to control. His statement also suggests an incredible lack of situational awareness by those who devised the new TSA procedures.

Although the TSA, in response to a public uproar, is considering ways to make its procedures less objectionable in the long run, there are no plans for short term change "we can believe in." Of perhaps some interest is this statement in the linked Reuters article:

Authorities ... a year ago ... prevented a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit with a bomb hidden in a passenger's clothes.

Would that it were true. The "authorities" didn't do it; airline passengers did and were the first line of defense. Still, let it not be said that the TSA failed to do everything possible short of profiling and consistent with "CYA" to prevent a similar future occurrence.

Many consider the current TSA procedures necessary for our safety because we, as a society, are not prepared to engage in the cardinal sin of "profiling." The TSA therefore insists on treating everyone the same -- even those with significant medical conditions making it grossly improper to treat them that way. Here is a video of an interview with a bladder cancer survivor whose ostomy bag was messily and in humiliating fashion detached during a grope, even though he had several times cautioned the TSA agent who did it. Was it reasonable to treat him "just like everybody else"? Might a competently trained groper paid and deserving more than a near minimum wage have avoided the problem? That sort of thing, while bad, is merely one symptom of "treat everybody the same except when it is politically correct to do otherwise."

There is an unfortunate tendency to think in terms of bumper stickers; when they are too complex, labels -- racism, sexism, and profiling -- are used. There are three basic steps in the labeling process:

Give something bad a label;

Apply the same label to other things;

Treat them as though they were all the same.

Here is one definition of profiling:

Profiling refers to the law enforcement practice of the detention, interdiction, or other disparate treatment of an individual on the basis of the racial or ethnic status of such individual.

Terrorists are not distinguishable from non-terrorists on the basis of race or ethnicity because they are of different races and come from different countries; there have been black and non-black, Arab and non-Arab, terrorists from the United States and elsewhere.

Sensible people profile daily, and not only for law enforcement purposes. A guy walking into a convenience store with a bag over his head and carrying something which appears to be a pistol may intend to rob the store; he may just be en route to a Halloween party, but inherent situational awareness certainly makes us legitimately concerned. "Profiling" is commonly used by the police: if a young Latina (female) is seen robbing a gasoline station, the police presumably concentrate their investigations on young Latinas rather than on elderly males appearing to be Swedish -- not because all young Latinas are considered more likely to rob gasoline stations but because the robber of that gasoline station was a young Latina.