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When in Danger, Profiling Is Rational

I’m going to offer a lukewarm defense of TSA’s new procedures. Well, not quite ... but I do want people to back away from the more absurd rhetoric.

Yes, I had a good laugh about that T-shirt: “We get off before you get on.” And there are undoubtedly some TSA employees who are enjoying the chance to grope. But I am sure that this article about how upset many of them are about having to do these intrusive searches is more typical. A friend of mine works for TSA, and several weeks ago he told me that he was actively seeking new work so that he would not have to start touching people in intimate areas.

But let’s not forget why the whole body scans and the intimate pat-down are now part of airport screening: it is because of the Fruit-of-the-Boom incident last December, and the less widely known explosive packed bras of Chechen “black widows.” TSA’s efforts do not stem from a desire to annoy us or to deny Americans their civil liberties. They are based on very real security concerns.

Now -- is there a better way to do this? Almost certainly, there is.

At least part of the problem is that Bush’s Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta was dead set against “ethnic profiling.” In light of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (Secretary Mineta was an unwilling participant), this is not surprising. But what is the alternative? There is a very strong correlation between religion and ethnicity and the likelihood that you are going to blow up an American airliner -- indeed, nearly 100%.

Is this unfair to Muslims and Arabs? Yup. Life is hard. Get used to it. We are at war. There is no need for TSA to be rude about focusing their attention on passengers who fit the profile, but it sure makes more sense than what we are doing now. I’ve experienced a very similar form of profiling, and while I didn’t like it, I completely understand its regrettable necessity. I hope that those who would get shunted aside from more detailed questioning and searching based on fitting the profile will understand it, too.

I recall once walking home from an evening college class. I was on a lonely little path between the university and town, and the sun was just setting. Ahead of me on the path was a young lady, presumably another student. She was a bit shorter than me, and over time, because of my longer stride, I was catching up to her. It was not intentional; at first, I did not even notice that I was overtaking her. But she noticed. And then I realized that she was walking unnaturally faster. She accelerated to a near-run as she realized that a guy she did not know was twenty yards behind her and getting closer.

My first reaction was anger: how dare she assume I was a rapist?

But the more I thought about it, the more her prejudiced attitude -- her “sexual profiling” -- made perfect sense. For practical purposes, all rapists are men. A woman legitimately can assume that an unknown man is infinitely more likely to be a rapist than an unknown woman.

Only a very tiny fraction of men are rapists, of course, but this woman had no way of knowing whether I was part of the tiny fraction who are rapists, or the vast majority who are not: the risk was greater than zero. Consider the danger involved if she wrongly assumed that I was not dangerous. Her assumption was grossly unfair to me, but it was completely rational.

I did not want to scare her, so I slowed to a crawl. I was no longer angry at her bigoted assumption -- instead, I was sorrowful that she had to worry about me. I was angry at how a small number of rapists have made women rationally fearful of a man they don’t know.

Let’s put the blame for this groping fiasco where it properly belongs: the terrorists who give us reason to fear explosives in all the wrong places, and the terror of common-sense screening procedures.