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January 10, 2002
Profiles in Courage
By James Q. Wilson and Heather R. Higgins. Mr. Wilson is the author of "Moral Judgment" (Basic
Books, 1997). Mrs. Higgins is the vice president of the Independent Women's Forum.
These days, it seems every evening's news leads with another story of consternation
by somebody over
the use of "racial profiling." But before the country is carried away with slogans, we ought to
spend a little time being honest about the question. That means recognizing that most profiling is
not racial, that some profiling (even when it involves race) is essential under some circumstances,
and that it would be impossible for law enforcement to do its job without taking into account the
observable features of people.
Young men are vastly more likely to commit crimes than are young women or older
men. When the police
scan the streets looking for people to question, should they stop men and women, old and young at
equal rates? Black men are six to eight times more likely to commit violent crimes than are white
men. When the police patrol the streets trying to prevent crime, should they stop white and black
men at the same rate?
Notice, please, that we say "stop," not "arrest." The police
have a right to question citizens, but
they only have a right to arrest them if they have evidence they have committed a crime. It would be
manifestly wrong to arrest or issue so much as a traffic ticket to a person simply because of his
age, sex, or race. "Driving While Black" (or while young or male) is not an offense with which
anyone should be charged.
We do not doubt that pedestrians or motorists have been stopped because of their race, but we
suspect that if someone did a decent study of police behavior (instead of relying on the complaints
of politicians and activists) they would discover that in most cases (if unhappily, not in all of
them), there were more cues leading to the stop than just sex or race.
Consider the case of the Street Crimes Unit in the New York Police Department.
This group, while
much maligned, took thousands of guns off the street, helping drive down that city's murder rate. It
did so by stopping and patting down people on the street. Heather Mac Donald reported that the unit
frisked 45,000 people during a two-year period, leading to 9,500 arrests and the seizure of 2,500
Getting one gun off the street for every 18 stops is a pretty good outcome,
considering that those
not carrying guns, or doing something otherwise illegal, were merely inconvenienced for a few
minutes. No doubt some people regarded the stop as worse than an inconvenience and no doubt some
stops may have been hard to justify. But the hassle factor has to be evaluated in the light of the
great gains: 2,500 fewer dangerous weapons in dangerous hands.
Now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11 the task of law enforcement has been taken
to a different level.
It must figure out how to prevent a tiny fraction of the millions of people who use our airports
from carrying knives, guns, and bombs onto airliners. For people working airport security stations,
the risks to society of their failure are vastly greater than for the Street Crimes Unit.
In just a few seconds, a screener must decide whether to pat down a person
who is hurrying to a
plane. Trained properly, these screeners must be able to notice some bits of behavior or body
language that may be a tip-off -- a nervous, hurried manner, perhaps, or dodgy eyes or a guilty
look. But not all terrorists are basket cases. And for many of those serving as the country's final
line of defense against terrorism in the skies, physical features may be all they have to go on. As
Professor Peter H. Schuck of Yale Law School recently pointed out, the screeners have no choice but
to rely on stereotypes to make a reasonable judgment.
So, stereotypes. The word has come to connote any irrational prejudice. But
stereotypes are not in
fact any different from the fleeting impressions and judgments we all use to govern our daily lives.
We are cautious about people who have a rough appearance or speak in an erratic manner just as we
are drawn to people who are attractive and well-spoken. And while those instincts of avoidance or
attraction are not always reliable, indulging ourselves with the luxury of waiting for conclusive
evidence would mean either meeting no one, or everyone.
As Mr. Schuck says, a stereotype is halfway between an error and a fact. We
should try to use it
When James Wilson's wife, Roberta, recently went flying, she was picked out
at the boarding gate by
American Airlines for a complete search. She is the least threatening person one could image -- five
feet tall, blonde hair, older than she would like to be, and with a beatific expression on her face.
She was picked, the airline agent said, "at random."
When Heather Higgins went to Reagan National Airport, Delta Airlines selected
15 passengers for
complete searches. Though all terrorists involved in Sept. 11 were young Middle Eastern males, Delta
picked three elderly men (one an Asian), six Caucasian women, including one with two children, and
two Hispanic women. Yet in the line of 70 or so passengers, there were six individuals who were not
only Middle Eastern but young, male, and traveling alone. Not one of them was checked. When asked,
Delta said the only searches they would do were at random.
By contrast, when a male Secret Service agent armed with a gun left on his
airplane seat his bag and
some books, apparently written in Arabic, the flight attendants became alarmed. The pilot reviewed
the man's paperwork and found it incomplete. When asked to fill out a new form, the agent became
anxious and then hostile. As Christopher Caldwell has pointed out in The Weekly Standard, had the
agent been named John Smith instead of Walied Shater, there would have been no incident. But Mr.
Shater and the Council on American Islamic Relations claimed he was the victim of ethnic profiling.
Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Higgins get searched, and they pass it off. But a Near
Eastern male carrying a
gun and claiming he was going to see the president on the basis of incomplete forms starts
complaining about profiling?
This is nonsense. Doing only random searches and not questioning an armed Middle
Eastern male can
only be justified if your only goal is to avoid the charge of "profiling." If your goal instead is
to prevent somebody from carrying a shoe bomb or box cutters onto an airplane, then the search
should not be random but deliberate, using all available facts to form a useful, if not entirely
Of course, to do that exposes the airline to charges of "profiling."
And indeed it is profiling. But
it is not a profile based exclusively or even chiefly on race, but on hints -- that is, useful
stereotypes -- supplied by judgments made by rational people. Unfortunately, political leaders and
civil rights activists have so polarized the discussion of profiling that an entirely defensible
screening policy is now regarded as a threat to our fundamental liberties and is replaced by an
irrational screening policy that threatens our safety.
The more we study terrorists, the more we will learn about them and the better
profiles -- our stereotypes -- will become. If we apply that knowledge, fewer innocent people will
face any burden and more real terrorists will be caught. We will overcome slogans about "racial
profiling" and instead become a bit safer.
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