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After-the-fact pseudo-wise man watch

The Sunday talk shows overflowed with specious explanations for the underwear bomber incident:

Other Republicans were more measured. On CNN, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, praised Obama’s reaction to the Flight 253 attack. But he said it was clear that until Christmas, the administration was “distracted” by health care, the economy, global warming and other issues and not “focused as it should be on terrorism.”

Sheer nonsense.  Is Kean implying that employees of the NSA, CIA, and the National Counterterrorism Center were distracted from their signals analysis by the fight over a single payer plan?  What would it have meant in this specific case for the administration to be “focused as it should be on terrorism” in a way that was not already happening in the relevant agencies?  The political operatives who manage the health care and global warming efforts have nothing to do with consular and intelligence matters.  And the Obama White House was criticized for spending too much time on the Afghanistan escalation decision, which was justified exclusively in “war on terror” terms. 

Everyone wants some simplistic moral from the story that will allow us to feel that the world is fully controllable if we could just get the details right.  But sometimes things happen randomly without fitting into a satisfying narrative of obvious fault. 

I am amazed that Obama has so quickly gone forward with national origins scrutiny at airports; I obviously misjudged his fealty to the civil libertarian left.  The arguments against such commonsensical security measures are illogical:

        –“Not everyone in the 14 countries is a terrorist.”  True.  So how does it follow that we should therefore be screening the entire universe of non-terrorists?  The idea that you do a better job of security by spreading finite, inadequate investigatory resources over an entire population, rather than focusing on those subgroups from which Islamic terrorists most frequently come, is absurd.  And if receiving extra screening at an airport is such an awful, demeaning fate for nationals of those 14 countries, why is it better to subject every person from every country on earth to such screening? 
        –“We would have missed Richard Reid under the extra scrutiny regime,” argued Senator Susan Collins.  We did anyway.  But the presence of an outlier does not invalidate a valid statistical portrait.   No one is contemplating discarding all airport security (though I would almost be willing to take my chances than go through this mounting overkill); the only question is where to focus the new layers that we are piling on.  
        –“This is ‘racial profiling,’ therefore, by definition, illegitimate.”  But the only people who commit Islamic terrorism are Muslims; Muslims don’t just stand a higher chance of committing Islamic terrorism, they are the only people who commit Islamic terrorism.  That’s not playing the odds; it’s a tautology.  The national origins screen is a proxy for Islamic faith, and the only one we have.


  • Elroy · January 4, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    One of the arguments against profiling is that terrorists will recruit people of different ethnicity’s such as Europeans. It seems to me that forcing terrorists organizations to recruit outside their normal channels has higher risk and higher cost for them which may work to our advantage.

  • Gotchaye · January 4, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I generally agree, but one point: the usual response to “why is it better to subject every person from every country on earth to such screening?” is that part of what makes extra screening so awful and demeaning is just its non-random application. The notion is that there’s a difference in character between being investigated randomly and being investigated because one is a suspect. And let’s be clear – the justification of profiling is just that certain groups are suspect. We hold certain groups suspect for perfectly sound reasons (individuals from these groups are in fact more likely to be wrongdoers), but when the actual number of wrongdoers is so small, it’s not clear whether or not the added chance of catching a bad guy is worth treating a large number of innocent people as suspects. The alternative is to accept a smaller chance of catching bad guys, perhaps by profiling but pretending not to by occasionally searching old white women, while not giving innocents the impression that they’re being targeted by the government for special scrutiny.

    I don’t find this to be a compelling reason to oppose profiling, but I do understand those who think it is.

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  • Mike H · January 5, 2010 at 7:39 am

    I support those new measures except I’d extend the extra-attention to individuals who have visas or stamps from such countries in their passport, thereby extending the reach into individuals with Western citizenry who for one reason or another have been visiting those nations frequently.

  • Bob Smith · January 5, 2010 at 10:20 am

    The reasons you have to screen everyone are:

    1) The terrorists share a common ideology, Islam, which is not tattooed on their forehead. Since the Quran commands lying to defend the spread of Islam, it is impossible to reliably tell which Muslim is a threat.
    2) Terrorists do not share a common ethnicity. The slaughter continues apace in Thailand, Pakistan, Nigeria, Phillippines, Balkans, Somalia, and Sudan, among many others.
    3) Terrorists do not have to fly from their country of ethnic origin. Flying through London, a hotbed of jihad, is very common.
    4) Muslim governments can’t be trusted. They are so riddled with jihadists that identity documents and any “vetting” of one of their citizens can be presumed to be bogus. The documents are not forgeries, per se, but they are lies. I wouldn’t trust their airline screening either.

  • Le Mur · January 5, 2010 at 11:56 am

    This is ‘racial profiling,’ therefore, by definition, illegitimate.

    That’s no longer remotely true since “racial profiling” has been declared to be A-OK and is used at every level of gov’t for hiring and contracting. Under the current twisting of the constitution all you’d have to do is to show that Muslims create a “disparate impact” and therefore deserve extra-special treatment.

    The reasons you have to screen everyone are:

    Make everyone eat a BLT before boarding. I’ll take two.

  • Tom Piatak · January 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    An excellent analysis.

  • Don · January 6, 2010 at 6:07 am

    How do we protect ourselves from angry white men such as James Adkisson and Timothy McVeigh except by profiling white men?

  • Aaron · January 6, 2010 at 6:21 am


    Good point, Gotchaye. I agree with you that Muslims should be profiled, but there are very sound arguments against it. Most of us who support profiling concentrate on probabilities and risks, and ignore less measurable things like solidarity. Profiling, especially when carried out by the state, alienates large segments of the polity, as is described here in the case of Arab Israelis. It’s important to remember that opponents of profiling have good arguments on their side and aren’t all just politically correct loonies.

  • Polichinello · January 6, 2010 at 9:46 am

    The point behind profiling isn’t that we look exclusively at a certain ethnicity. It’s so that if we pay closer attention to a certain segment than others, the government and its employees won’t be sued by the usual suspects. As it is now, we have to hassle an equally proportionate number of Japanese grannies as we do Egyptian males of college age.

  • Polichinello · January 6, 2010 at 9:50 am


    Neither McVeigh or Adkisson are part of an on-going international group that has and still is targeting U.S. flights, that has all sorts of financial and logistical support in easily identifiable regions. Citing these isolated loon is nothing more than throwing out PC chaff.

  • Bob Smith · January 6, 2010 at 10:08 am

    alienates large segments of the polity, as is described here in the case of Arab Israelis

    If it weren’t for the fact that large segments of the Arab Israeli population (by which I mean Muslim Arabs, not the few Christian or Jewish Arabs) are agitating for the destruction of Israel I’d have some sympathy for them. Heck, Arab members of the Knesset itself publicly call for such. By obeying Islam’s commands that Islam must dominate, everywhere, and that Jews must be destroyed, everywhere, Arab Israelis show that they were never members of the polity to begin with (other than in the most formal sense), so saying they’ve been alienated is factually false.

  • Aaron · January 6, 2010 at 11:53 am

    @Bob Smith
    Bob, I agree with you about Arab Israelis not being part of the Israeli polity. I’ve argued the same thing elsewhere, probably at way too much length. Israel is (in the words of an Israeli Arab MK) “a democracy for the Jews and a Jewish state for the Arabs”. Still it’s a bad thing to alienate Arab citizens any more than necessary, even if they’re not loyal to the state. Which is partly what that Ynet article I linked to was about.

    Anyway, I was talking more about the US. Unlike in Israel, Muslim Americans are part of the American polity, which makes it all the sadder to drive a wedge between them and the rest of America every time they travel by plane. I do think the benefit in security outweighs the cost in solidarity, but I couldn’t come up with any rational argument for that.

  • Don · January 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    James Von Brunn, angry white guy Holocaust Museum shooter has died. How long until the growing numbers of angry white guy shooters and bombers, who have lots of support from right wing groups and a wink from right wing politicians, start mimicking the rest of their homicidal cohort.

  • Don · January 6, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Throw in angry white guy antiabortion protester bomb throwers.

  • Gotchaye · January 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Don – unless you’re arguing that profiling wouldn’t have nearly as much popular support if white men were a targeted group (which may well be true), I don’t know what you’re getting at. It’s not exactly an argument against profiling generally to point out that virtually every terrorist (and, hell, virtually every violent criminal) has been male. That’s just an argument for a different targeted group – perhaps we should put white male Christians from Kansas through more security than female Muslims from Yemen.

  • Don · January 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Gotchaye. We have lots to fear from people who look like me. The underwear bomber was a black man, not a middle easterner. But I do get on board with your suggestion that some (WMCfromKansas) are more likely to use weapons of mass destruction than others. Muslim women, I wouldn’t put on the do not watch list. Recall why Israel built their fence.

  • Mike H · January 6, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    How many white nazi type terrorists a la McVeigh or Von Brunn did actually target airliners anyway. As a target for terrorists planes were popularized by the Palestinians and their communist fanboys in the 70s and they have since remained a target mostly for muslim terrorists.

    If there was a number of examples of white neonazis attempting or succeeding to blow up airliners then airport security controls ought to reflect that as well, however there aren’t any such examples and thus it’s not something that would come up.

    Profiling was used by European governments to track down their domestic communist terrorists in the 70s and obviously that profiling was targeted at groups amongst the white natives of those nations so I’d say it’s pretty safe to say that the one shared trait of profiling attempts is to get a closer focus on the pool from which the terrorists primarily recruit themselves. In this instance the pool is Muslims, the country list is a necessarily flawed attempt to narrow it down a bit to that group.

  • Bob Smith · January 6, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    @Aaron :
    Anyway, I was talking more about the US. Unlike in Israel, Muslim Americans are part of the American polity

    American Muslims do keep telling us this at length, but are they? CAIR is a branch of Hamas. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim-American Society are branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Arab Student Aid International (Dublin OH) funded weapons labs at Hamas-controlled University of Gaza. The FBI is investigating American Somalis who are going to Somalia to train with Al-Shabaab. US Representative Keith Ellison’s pilgrimage to Mecca was paid for by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, another de facto arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in the US. You may recall Somali taxi drivers attempting to enforce Islamic prohibitions on alcohol and dogs by refusing passengers who carried them. And there was always the Holy Land Foundation trial. HLF was one of dozens of Islamic “charity” groups fronting for jihadists. That these are front groups for terrorists is so well known that I cannot give American Muslims the benefit of the doubt for the millions of dollars a year they give to them.

  • outeast · January 14, 2010 at 5:23 am

    As a member of the cilvil-libertarian left I do have a principled bias against racial or national profiling, but it’s not absolute – it’s a matter of prima facie or pro tanto rights, not absolute rights – and if sufficient benefits in risk reduction could be demonstrated then I’d be defending such screening measures. As yet, and as with many other airport security measures, I’ve not heard that any meaningful benefit has been shown: it’s just not a sensitive enough measure to be of any real use. And real use must be demonstrated in order to override a right (such as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality).



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