Commentary: Profile to Survive

By IRA STRAUS   |   Oct. 19, 2002 at 2:20 PM

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Recently, a young Italian woman was grabbed in a Washington-area parking lot. A knife was put to her throat. She gave up her purse but was dragged anyway to a dark street. Only by luck did she escape just before she would have been thrown into a car.

In her years of education in Italy, she had been taught what everyone is taught: that there is a lot of racism in America, meaning oppression of blacks by whites. She was taught that all good people condemn America for its racism. Then she came here and learned from another teacher -- experience.

She learned that racism goes both ways. That it is not America that is racist but groups of individuals, including some anti-Americans, both white and black, who are too quick to blame white Americans and to exonerate crimes against them.

She learned social reality is more complicated than the black-and-white morality tale she had been taught. And on the other hand, that some elementary realities of social coping, which she had been taught to scorn, remain absolutely necessary and proper. You see a person approaching. Whatever his color, he seems potentially threatening. You get out of the way, cross the street, look for a group of passers-by to join.

How do you make the decision? By profiling. That is, by looking for characteristics that have tended to correlate with dangerous or threatening behavior.

Profiling is universal. Every person relies on it for a preliminary rating of their risks with each person they run into.

If people do not profile explicitly, they do it implicitly. If they do not do it consciously, they do it unconsciously. If they do not do it intelligently, on a basis of correlations relevant to their safety, then they do it unintelligently, with little gain to their safety. If they suppress the thought of it, they sublimate it or translate it into another, more "correct" jargon in their minds. But they go on doing it. They could not live without it.

Do police do it too? Of course they do. All police and investigative efforts involve working from two ends, direct and indirect. The direct end means following the trail of specific leads and informants. The indirect end means profiling; that is, finding a social milieu or pool to look in and ask around in -- a milieu where there are more likely to be informants, leads, and criminals answering to that crime.

In the absence of conclusive specific leads, profiling is the only way to narrow the milieu of where to look. One cannot question everyone. One has to define a much smaller milieu where the likelihood of involvement is greater. One starts with the physical neighborhood of the crime, then with the probable social neighborhood of the probable criminals, taking into account a number of factors including class, race, clique, clan, religion, and occupation.

In preventive investigations, such as are necessary when dealing with the threat of mass terrorism, profiling is still more important. No visible crime has yet been committed to generate leads; the only option is skillful snooping in a plausible milieu.

This is the way it has been done for thousands of years. Recently people have learned that they can complain about profiling and get sympathy by opposing it, but they have not figured out how to do without it.

If profiling were to be fully suppressed, police work would become hopeless; it would end up depending completely on witnesses stepping forth and volunteering evidence. And usually there are simply not enough voluntary witnesses with enough relevant information.

To profile is morally risky; to fail to profile is suicidal. One can suppress the instinct of suspicion of suspicious-looking persons, but not the consequences.

The dangers of unfair and unreasonable profiling -- that is, profiling based on unfounded prejudices such as racism -- are well known. They are widely discussed, guarded against, and proscribed. In the present period it is suppression of reasonable and justified profiling that is the greater danger. And it is inadequately discussed.

Profiling is one of those things that remain necessary and proper. It is a normal instinct for safety and survival. It can be abused, as can all sound instincts and practices, but a healthy society will try to restrain the abuse, not suppress the instinct itself.

Profiling sometimes includes controversial components, such as race and religion, along with less controversial ones such as age and sex, but it is the unfair abuse of these components that needs restraint, not the reasoned handling of them. Open discussion of sound and unsound profiling would do far more to refine it and restrain its abuses than blanket condemnation, which only drives it underground.

In the case of the terrorism that presently threatens America, profiling inevitably includes an ethnic dimension -- Arab -- and a religious dimension -- Islam. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, these are understandably important factors: as predictors. Indeed so far it may be said that they are more important than all other factors combined, although that could change in the future as terrorism can come from many grievances and many quarters.

But only by using what indicators are indeed available to us and most probable under current circumstances can a milieu be defined within which to seek leads. With their help, the range of the relevant milieu is narrowed from the original 100 percent of the population to a much smaller proportion -- probably less than 3 percent in the United States. Only such an a priori narrowing of probabilities for initial investigation can provide a manageable basis for effective security work. No other relevant factors can bring us anywhere near to this degree of narrowing. Collectively as well as individually, profiling is still one of the foundations for survival.

The young Italian lady's experience did not incline her toward any kind of racism, but it did teach her to instinctively "profile" people in public places according to their possibly suspicious behavior and demeanor. She learned the hard way that alertness and a presumption of malicious intent are essential components for survival on the streets in modern American society. And she was lucky the lesson did not come at a far more fearful price.

I have especial reason to be relieved that she escaped as she did. For she is my wife.

Ira Straus is former Fulbright professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

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