The Right Way to Profile

Join me, if you will, in a bit of counterfactual history.  It is the morning of April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon.  At around 2 p.m., long after the fastest of the runners have finished the race, the Tsarnaev brothers are making their way down Boylston Street toward the area of the finish line.

As the brothers weave through the crowd, police K-9 teams are completing a bomb sweep of the area, using police dogs to sniff for explosives in trash cans, newspaper racks, and anything else that might be used to conceal a destructive device.  It is the second such search of the day.

The Tsarnaevs, like a number of people nearby, stand and watch as the dogs and their handlers complete their work.  But unlike the others, who are merely curious at the sight, and who resume watching the race or passing this way or that after the police finish their task, the Tsarnaevs pay particular attention to the K-9 teams and their movements.  This is noted by an undercover officer who has been posted in the area.

“I’ve got two subjects,” the officer says into a concealed microphone attached to his radio, “male whites, both carrying backpacks.”  He then goes on to describe them further, using the standard police practice of detailing the subjects’ attire from the head down.  “Number one, twenties, dark baseball hat, dark jacket, light-colored pants.  Number two, late teens, white baseball hat, dark jacket and pants.  Both have dark-colored backpacks.  Boylston and Hereford, north side, heading east.”

As the officer begins shadowing the subjects from a distance, others on his team hear the broadcast and begin tracking the subjects’ movements, referring to them now as Black Hat and White Hat.  Soon a number of officers are monitoring the Tsarnaevs, some on foot, some watching from rooftops and using binoculars.  Many people in the crowd are carrying backpacks, some of them containing changes of clothes to be offered to finishing runners, others bearing food and drinks.  But the officers note a difference in the ones carried by the Tsarnaevs.  “Their backpacks look heavy,” says one over the radio.  “There’s more than clothes or lunch in there.”

The subjects continue to walk east, their movements conspicuous only to those trained to spot the subtle anomalies.  The officers take note of the fact that, unlike most of the other people in the area, the Tsarnaevs do not appear to be watching the race or looking down the street for some acquaintance to appear among the finishers.  Instead, they seem to be scanning the crowd, paying particular attention to the uniformed police officers in the area.  At times they stand or walk together, at others they stand or walk apart as though distancing themselves from one another.  When the brothers arrive in front of the Starbucks at 755 Boylston, they speak briefly with each other before one of them continues east.

“They’re splitting up,” says an officer over the radio.  “Black Hat remains at the Starbucks, White Hat is walking east.”  The officers break into two teams, one for each of the subjects.

“Let’s talk to them,” says a police supervisor over the radio.

Three officers approach White Hat as he walks down Boylston Street.  Two of them stand back while the third approaches White Hat.  “Sir,” says the contact officer, displaying his badge, “I’m a police officer.  Can I talk to you for a minute?”

White Hat does his best to maintain his composure, but the adrenaline coursing through his system makes him fidgety, a fact readily apparent to the officers.  The contact officer asks to see White Hat’s identification, at which time the man takes off his backpack as if about to retrieve his wallet.  He then suddenly breaks away and tries to flee.  As he runs, he takes some type of remote controller from his jacket pocket and attempts to manipulate it, but the other two members of the team are prepared for just this contingency.  They pin White Hat’s arms behind his back and wrest the controller from his grasp before he can activate it.

Back in front of the Starbucks, the officers who had been monitoring Black Hat are alerted to what has just occurred up the street.  They approach Black Hat from behind and, without warning, grab his hands, subdue him, and remove his backpack and remote control device.  The race is halted and the area is evacuated while bomb disposal officers examine the backpacks and disable the bombs discovered within.

It is of course a big news story.  “Disaster Averted at Marathon” says the headline in the next day’s Boston Globe, and in the following days the details emerge about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the former’s trip to Dagestan and all the many other reasons the brothers should have been watched more closely.

But soon another story appears in the Globe.  “Were Bomb Suspects ‘Profiled’?” asks the headline.  And beneath that headline it is revealed that a handful of people in the crowd at the marathon, some of them bearded Muslim men in their 20s but with no connection to the Tsarnaevs, were questioned by undercover police officers.  And, though none of these contacts with police lasted longer than a minute or two, the men felt “insulted and humiliated,” and they believed they were unfairly targeted due to their recognizable appearance as Muslims.

Night after night on MSNBC and elsewhere, representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and similar groups regale sympathetic and credulous television hosts with tales of Muslim suffering at the hands of bigoted police officers.  In due season, the story of the successful takedown of the bombers is all but forgotten while the woeful tales of put-upon Muslims go on for days and weeks.