Dialogue: On Profiling

{This all comes because of the recent stir Sam Harris has raised with his article, In Defense of Profiling. I didn’t originally expect to end with the conclusion I did, so this was an interesting project for me.}

Once upon a time, I was a young and skinny kid with a shaved head, a laptop, and a pocket full of dreams catching a plane for sunny Denver, Colorado to attend Web Design ’99. On my way back, I was pulled aside by security and asked to open my laptop. They started poking it clumsily, and I asked what they were looking for. The answer was naked pictures of minors. Needless to say, I was more than a bit offended, but I fit the profile. We then had a humorous conversation wherein they found out what I did for a living and asked how I would go about smuggling such images across the border:

Me: I would email them.

Security: But say you couldn’t.

Me: You mean like if the entire internet suddenly went dead, and not even a modicum of communications infrastructure existed to allow me to send files digitally across the border?

Security: Yeah!

Me: In that highly unlikely event, I would use an uncommon ZIP tool to make a single file out of whatever it was that they were to contain. I would then rename the file “WIN32SYS.BAK” or something equally innocuous, and I would put it in the Windows system directory.

Security: Hmm. How do you s’pose we would stop that?

Me: You wouldn’t.

I’m kind of surprised they didn’t immediately go looking for that file on my laptop. The whole thing was ridiculous because I would assume anyone sleazy enough to peddle such disgusting garbage would be smart enough to recognize that carting it across the border was totally unnecessary. But these guys had a job to do, and I wasn’t about to get in the way of their doing it. The only thing on the laptop was a couple of work projects I needed to make adjustments to remotely. We had rebuilt the box shortly before I took it to Denver, and it was work’s laptop, so it’s not like I was putting anything personal on it. They could look at it all they liked.

Anyway, long story short, the reason they pulled me aside and not the old woman or the Christian missionary in front of me was because I fit the bill. There’s obviously no “look” for a villain, but short of going through every single person’s every single thing looking for every single possibility, you have to put your resources where they can do the most good. And people who looked like me were a better return on their time investment than people who looked like pensioners.

I don’t like profiling. I think profiling is horrible. And I’m profiled all the bloody time, being a big, strong guy who looks a lot like a biker, has a shaved head, atypical facial hair, tattoos, and evil, Germanic features. People make a wide range of assumptions about me based solely on my appearance, my favorite being that I am a racist. This makes me giggle, because I am not a racist, and because of the — is it irony? — to be found in their judging me by appearances and deciding that I am someone who judges others by their appearance, which is bad.

Even before 9-11, profiling was happening all the time. Since 9-11, profiling has taken on a life of its own. Flying while brown is the new driving while black. Despite the Timothy McVeighs of the world, airports and other mass transportation areas are much more aware of anything that even sounds remotely Muslim, like when Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) wasn’t allowed entry to the US. They hide behind the War On Terror and chip away at our freedoms and rights.

But are they wrong? I think this is one of those situations where maybe right and wrong depend on perspective and trying to pick the lesser of two evils.

If you want people to be safe, the most thorough way would be to ensure that every single passenger were naked and strip searched, strapped into their seat, refused bathroom access for the duration of the flight, and had all possessions stored in the baggage compartment. All flight and ground crew would similarly be naked and searched, and no food or drink would be served. If you create a perfect locked room, then the people within that room are perfectly safe. Personally, I would have no problem with naked flights, provided they increased the size of the seats. Nothing is more revolting than the idea of being squashed in like sardines with naked men returning from their Des Moines sales junket, and that’s the sort I always get stuck flying next to.

Likewise, if we flip the scales in the other direction (to the absurd), the most thorough way to ensure everyone’s freedom is to do nothing. Anyone can board any plane with anything they like. No baggage checks, no metal detectors, no wands, and no need for security staff. We could even put some absolute barrier between the cabin and the passengers to ensure that not only are the pilots shielded from any possible debris or explosions, even perhaps going so far as to give the nose an ejection functionality and deployable parachute in the case of an explosion, but also shielded from any contact with the passengers. If a passenger jumps up with a bomb and says he’ll kill everyone, the pilot and copilot would be kept utterly unaware of the danger and safe within the nose of the plane. They would have no way of knowing that there were terrorists on board and be insulated from any attacks, thus ensuring that no flight plans would be changed and no buildings careened into.

Neither one sounds like a suitable option. So we need to make a choice on where in the middle we meet. Security is always a matter of giving up convenience and putting up with nuisance, and no system is utterly perfect.

So is profiling an acceptable compromise? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say that it’s no big thing as a white male, but for those who are actually targeted by profiling, the answer might be strikingly different. And as much as the decision is ours, it isn’t. Largely, the decision rests with a combination of our various governing documents like constitutions and the people who run the airline companies. How much or how little danger will they tolerate their staff and resources to be exposed to?

I think, given the realities at play here, that profiling is an unfortunate but necessary thing. You won’t catch all the villains and you’ll annoy a lot of innocent people, but the risks of allowing someone on a plane with a weapon are far greater than the risks associated with letting an unknown black man drive a Mercedes through your neighborhood. Nobody likes to be the victim of profiling and prejudgement and all that crap, but my guess is that less people want to be the victims of a terrorist attack.

So what do you think? Please answer in the comments here.



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About biguglyjim

Like a caterpillar that spins a coccoon and emerges as a walrus with a mohawk, Big Ugly Jim has become something unexpected. Raised a fine young Christian boy in the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Jim began to question his teachings, first evaluating the wisdom of other religions and eventually realizing that none of them seemed any more accurate than any other, and not a one of them made a lick of sense. Today, Big Ugly Jim is a musician, a Business Analyst with Large Oil Company Whose Name Is Not Important, a music promoter with the Calgary Beer Core, a writer of fiction and non-fiction, a prick, an atheist, a father, an ex-husband, a role model, a horrifying vision in a red speedo (or at least he would be, if ever that happened which IT WOULD NOT), an announcer, and soon to be an officiator of weddings. Also, he's nice and does dishes. Jim continues to live in Calgary, spreading his filthy doctrine of free, critical thinking and appreciation for music.

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