The Faulty Logic of "Terrorist" Profiling

Growing up in the South, I often heard folks criticize others for being “common.” To be called common was to be vilified as trashy and unworthy of respect. Putting aside the elitist implications of such a slur, the pejorative nature of the term has always stuck with me, so much so that when I hear something described as “common sense,” I instinctively assume that while it may indeed be the former, it is rarely ever the latter.

There is no better example of this truism than with the desire of so many to endorse racial and religious profiling of Arabs and Muslims so as to thwart terrorist attacks. In the wake of the London subway bombings, the call for profiling is being heard once again (as it was after 9/11), and once again those proposing such measures are cloaking their demands in the garb of “common sense,” while mocking as politically correct fools, anyone who dares criticize the idea.

To wit, two separate editorials published on two successive days: first, the July 28th lead op-ed in the New York Times by Paul Sperry, of the conservative Hoover Institution, and then a syndicated piece by Charles Krauthammer on the 29th, both of which criticize New York,s subway security efforts for not focusing on young Arab and Muslim males.

To hear Sperry tell it, plans to search roughly one out of five passengers make no sense, given that “we know what we,re looking for” when it comes to suicide bombers. He conjures up the image of cops going through the bags of Girl Scouts and grandmothers, while letting the real threats slip through their fingers, so as not to be accused of intolerance.

Krauthammer calls random searches “idiotic,” and also resorts to the imagery of the elderly grandma–although in his rendering she is specifically “from Poughkeepsie”–searched so as to “assuage the feelings of minority fellow citizens.”

But in fact, resisting racial and religious profiling has nothing to do with political correctness: after all, the NYPD has never flinched from profiling black men for drugs, even though whites are equally or more likely to possess them. Rather, avoidance of this “common sense” prescription is also smart policy. As it turns out, profiling is not only ethically questionable; it is also unlikely to prevent terrorism.

Sperry’s insistence that profiling young Muslim men is no less rational than insurance agencies charging different premiums to persons of different groups (on the basis of age, for example), is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of statistical probability.

In the case of actuarial data used by insurers, there are millions of data points used to calculate risk, thereby ensuring fairly accurate predictions. But with terrorism, the sample size of the subjects in question is much smaller: depending on which incidents you include, between a few dozen or a few hundred people over the past decade. With so few persons involved, to draw conclusions about who is likely to be the next person to blow up a subway or hijack a plane would be to engage in what experts call sampling error. It seems rational, but it’s not: no more so than assuming that because most all sniper mass murderers have been white men, the next one will be too, only to discover that (as in the case of the DC snipers), they were actually black.

While Sperry views it as obvious that suicide bombers and terrorists are “most likely to be young Muslim men,” this fact (even if true) hardly validates profiling in practice. To begin with, how does one know a Muslim from their outward appearance? The 9/11 hijackers and London bombers typically dressed in Western apparel, were mostly clean-shaven, and in every respect blended in with the communities in which they carried out their attacks.

As for profiling young men of Arab or South Asian descent, there are followers of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism in as many as sixty-five nations, including the Philippines, Indonesia and several nations in Africa, none of whose citizens would fit the desired profile.

Indeed, it hardly takes a leap of imagination to believe that groups like al-Qaeda would work around any profile we adopted, by recruiting only those who wouldn’t trigger suspicion as readily for operations in the U.S. Even now we’ve seen would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid (a British and Caribbean black guy) slip through security in France because he didn,t fit the profile. Then there,s John Walker Lindh–white as snow–but attracted to the ideology of radical Islam as well.

And this is where Sperry and Krauthammer’s derision of searching old ladies and kids becomes especially dangerous. For what better place to hide an explosive than in the backpack, luggage or purse of such unsuspecting characters? Just last year, officials discovered a gun hidden in a child’s teddy bear, coming through airport security. What makes us think explosives couldn,t be similarly camouflaged?

Sperry and Krauthammer would apparently have us believe that persons who are ready and willing to blow themselves up would simply ditch their plans in the face of racial profiling. But terrorists are either motivated or they aren’t. If we assume the former to be true (and if we don’t, what are we worried about?), then we can hardly expect such folks to fold up shop this easily.

Indeed, why wouldn’t someone who saw they were going to be searched go ahead and detonate their bomb at the checkpoint, killing just as many people, and still ensuring themselves the martyrdom we are told they seek? Or perhaps just say to hell with the subway, and instead blow themselves up in the TKTS line in Times Square, thereby massacring dozens of would-be theatre patrons and striking fear in the heart of one of the most visible intersections in the world?

Among the reasons Sperry objects to the searches in New York, one is especially peculiar: namely, the fact that officials will be focusing on people who act suspicious.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that “suspicious behavior” is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, all available evidence suggests that law enforcement tends to “see” dangerous or suspicious behavior more readily in the actions of persons of color than whites, even when the whites they ignore are more likely to be engaged in nefarious activity (possession of guns or drugs, for example). So on that level, searching folks based on their behavior may indeed lead to abuses, will not likley prevent terrorism, and should probably be considered as illegitimate as targeted profiling; but of course, it is not for fear of possible abuse that Sperry dislikes such searches. If anything, he would likely welcome them if such abuses could only be guaranteed.

Rather, Sperry thinks that searches based on behavior would be far less effective that his preferred method: focusing on people “praying to Allah and smelling like flower water” Sperry suggests that suicide bombers douse themselves with perfume in anticipation of paradise, so this should be the basis for a search, but is he serious? With all the malodorous scents of a subway, how would one even be able to distinguish “flower water,” in the first place? Or to tell it apart it from the overbearing scent of patchouli, slathered on the clothing of some white Deadhead in lieu of taking a bath for the past week?

Krauthammer, to his credit, at least foresees the possibility of attempted circumvention by groups like al-Qaeda. Yet he insists we should proceed to profile anyway, since attempts to work around the profile will force terrorist groups to waste energy on finding less suspicious bombers. And, he crows, “by reducing the pool of possible terrorists from the hundreds of millions to…at most, tens of thousands, we will have reduced the probability of an attack by a factor of 10,000.”

But this is lunacy of the highest order. To begin with, Krauthammer is assuming that all young males from what he calls the “Islamic belt” are possible terrorists (thus the hundreds of millions reference): a conclusion that is not only absurd but demonstrates his own longstanding religious chauvinism. To argue such a thing is no more logical than to suggest all white male Christians are possible terrorists because every abortion clinic bomber has been a white male Christian, as were Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Secondly, Krauthammer assumes that by profiling young Muslim men, we would truly eliminate the threat from such persons. But as noted above, it’s not as if they couldn’t switch to other targets like open streets or cafes, where constant searches are obviously impossible not to mention unacceptable in a free society.

To then conclude that profiling would reduce the probability of attack by a factor of 10,000 is to make a fanciful calculation on the basis of these two previously ridiculous assumptions. In fact, if there are several million young Muslim males, only a few hundred of whom have been involved in these kinds of bombings or hijackings, the more proper calculation would be to say that the risk of attack is already infinitesimal from such persons, and that even if we shot every other young Muslim male in the head, we would only reduce the risk by an incalculable amount, in practical terms.

Not to mention, what the supporters of profiling ignore is how such actions might increase the risk of terrorist attack, not only by causing us to let down our guard to other types of threats than those posed by the usual suspects, but also by reducing the willingness of law-abiding Muslims or Arabs to cooperate with law enforcement for fear of being arrested, detained, or suspected of criminal activity. If such persons hear of pending attacks, but are afraid to come forward, the intelligence needed to thwart such bombings would be diminished, to the detriment of public safety.

So while white reactionaries like Sperry and Krauthammer prattle on about how racial profiling is just good common sense, it might do the rest of us well to remember the alternative definition of “common” that I learned as a child: trashy, and unworthy of respect indeed.

TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at:


















Tim Wise is the author of: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White and “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.” His latest book is Dispatches From the Race War (City Lights). He can be reached at: