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"Spare No Resource"

Terrorist profiling is the most efficient, and effective, method of anti-terror policing.

12:00 AM, Oct 19, 2005 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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ALTHOUGH NEW YORK CITY police announced last week that they would scale back the increased security measures that followed the recent terrorism scare, the subway terror alert highlighted two basic facts. The first is that the terrorists would like to strike our mass transit system; the second, is that this system is still highly vulnerable. The most telling comment in the October 6 press conference in which city officials announced their resolve to safeguard the subways came from Mayor Bloomberg: "We will spare no resource; we will spare no expense." While intended as a statement of determination, Bloomberg's words instead accentuated the ineffectiveness of New York's anti-terror policing. New York could spare resources, spare expenses, and make passengers safer if it used terrorist profiling.

The morning after New York increased its subway security, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Mike German defending New York's use of purely random bag searches rather than profiling. The op-ed's weaknesses are emblematic of the overall case against profiling.

The argument for profiling is simple and compelling: If our last line of defense is searching bags before riders enter the subway, our searches should target the passengers who are most likely to be terrorists. Only through intelligently targeted searches can we have a reasonable chance of disrupting terrorist plots. This means we should try to figure out how terrorists look and act--and that law enforcement should be trained in taking these factors into account.

Because this case is intuitive and hard to refute (why would we treat, say, U.S. senators the same as Mohamed Atta?), the opponents of profiling seemingly turn to autopilot when arguing against it, throwing out every claim that could possibly support their position with little critical filter. German does this when he argues that completely random bag searches are just as effective as profiling. And his case begins with the creation of a false dichotomy, in which one option is the most awkward kind of profiling done solely on the basis of race, and the other option is random searches.

Thankfully, other choices lie along the spectrum between these two extremes. A truly effective system of terrorist profiling would not look solely at a person's race in determining whether extra scrutiny is justified. Rather, a range of factors--including gender, age, dress, and behavior--can be used to identify the most likely terrorists. Surely there can be no argument against considering these non-racial factors.

While police can make good use of statistics to focus searches on the most likely terrorists, German makes bad use of statistics in an attempt to prove otherwise. He first spends considerable space demonstrating that most Muslims in America are not Arab. While true, this doesn't prove the inefficacy of racial profiling, which is not synonymous with "Arab profiling."

German then argues that racial profiling would "miss Muslims of European descent (2.1 percent) and white American Muslims (1.6 percent) such as Adam Gadahn, who is actively being sought by the FBI for possible connections to terrorist threats against the United States." It's true that al Qaeda has managed to recruit some people who fall outside the general racial profile, but there are two problems with German's argument. First, under an effective profiling system, resources would be concentrated on races that are statistically most likely to be jihadist terrorists, but other races would not be ignored completely. (Indeed, if we learned that al Qaeda had recruited more whites, we'd adjust the applicable profile and search more whites.)

More to the point, the fact that the terrorist profiles won't be perfect doesn't mean that we shouldn't use them. Even if it were true that terrorist profiling results in too few whites being searched, the present system results in a complete misallocation of resources because it draws no distinction between a 12-year-old Japanese schoolkid and a 25-year-old Arab. The fact that terrorist profiling is an imprecise art doesn't mean we should resign ourselves to an approach we know to be ineffective--particularly when the public's safety is at stake.