Saturday, July 30, 2005

Stopping Terrorists

Today, Colbert King takes on a couple of recent editorials by Charles Krauthammer, Paul Sperry, which he believes (in my opinion, correctly) espouse racism as a response to "terrorism", and one by Haim Watzman, a trigger-happy defense of the shooting of an innocent man by the London police, who believed he might be a suicide bomber. The Watzman piece presents the standard "us versus them" position that our sins are forgivable, because we have good intentions when we kill innocent people. Well, that may make our sins more forgivable, but it would be better not to kill innocent people. And it would be better not to rationalize the failure to improve practices which result in the loss of innocent lives, while glossing over the fact that the systems which resulted in the loss of innocent life can be - and often should be - improved.

Most of Mr. King's editorial, though, is focused on the Krauthammer and Sperry columns, which effectively direct the police to focus their attentions on young muslim men, while giving everybody else "a pass". As Krauthammer puts it,
We could start with a little age pruning -- no one under, say, 13, and no one over, say, 60. Then we could exempt whole ethnic populations, a list that could immediately start with Hispanics, Scandinavians and East Asians. Then we could have a huge saving, a 50 percent elimination of waste, by giving a pass to women, except perhaps the most fidgety, sweaty, suspicious-looking, overcoat-wearing, knapsack-bearing young woman, to be identified by the presiding officer.
The issue of "racial profiling" became a national concern a few years back, as a result of lazy, careless decisions by our nation's appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. Those decisions took science and statistics out of profiling, and transformed a profile from something that could be statistically demonstrated to be indicative of probable criminal activity, to whatever an individual officer claimed to be consistent with his experience. So what started out as a process by which justifiable suspicion could be created by a pattern (e.g., a single, young male Hispanic airline passenger, flying on a one-way ticket which was purchased with cash on the date of the flight, arriving no more than one hour before the flight, not checking any baggage, and flying on a route associated with drug courier activity) became a carte blanche for officers to assert profiles that amounted to "driving while black". Race can be an appropriate element in a profile, but the courts permitted it in practice to become the leading (or exclusive) element, and then expressed (or is that feigned) shock at the mess that resulted.

The larger problem of broad "profiles" is that they effectively become meaningless - and Mr. King does a good job of detailing how meaningless (and over-broad) the Krauthammer and Sperry "profiles" are. If the police were to follow the Krauthammer model, they would search phenomenal numbers of young men of color, and most of those searches would produce... nothing.

Beyond noting that there are non-muslim cultures in which suicide bombers don't meet Krauthammer's profile, King doesn't address Krauthammer's statistical argument, which is,
You object that either plan -- giving special scrutiny to young Islamic men, or, more sensitively, just eliminating certain demographic categories from scrutiny -- will simply encourage the jihadists to start recruiting elderly Norwegian women.

Okay. We can handle that. Let them try recruiting converts, women and non-usual suspects for suicide missions. That will require a huge new wasteful effort on their part. And, more important, by reducing the pool of possible terrorists from the hundreds of millions to, at most, the tens of thousands, we will have reduced the probability of an attack by a factor of 10,000. Those are far better odds at far less cost to us in money and effort. And infinitely less stupid.
When I consider the success the Tamil Tigers had in recruiting female suicide bombers, I am not reassured by Krauthammer's claims. But more to the point, Krauthammer assumes that if we were to systematically search any young many who "appeared" to be Muslim, we would cause a reduction in efforts to recruit suicide bombers among young Muslim men. I have seen no evidence of that - in fact, it seems that Israel's experience was that as it increased its security measures, it inspired greater recruitment. The eventual reduction in the number of successful bombings, to a level similar to that enjoyed during the period of relative peace preceding the second Intifada, is due to the construction of multi-billion dollar barriers, and to police methods which have improved interdiction, not to a reduction of volunteers.

So with no evidence that the number of young male volunteers will be affected, and some evidence that heavy-handed police tactics might actually increase their number, is Krauthammer seriously proposing that any male between the ages of 13 and 60 who "looks Muslim" be subjected to searches on such a regular and systematic basis that we can be sure that they are not carrying bombs? And based upon the number of U.S. suicide bombers to date, the result of this massive police effort would be an interdiction rate of... 0%? And this effort would last indefinitely? Get real.

And if we're talking about searches of bags as people enter the subway, we're at best diverting a potential suicide bomber to a different target. Worse, with his "free pass" program, while we focus upon the pool of people from whom Krauthammer asserts (in prototypical racist manner) that there are "hundreds of millions" of potential suicide bombers, we are giving the terrorists a guarantee of success each time they find a bomber who qualify for Krauthammer's "free pass".

And then, of course, we have the McVeigh/Nichols model of terrorist bombing (both of whom, by the way, would apparently qualify for Krauthammer's "free pass") - who says you need to carry a bomb on your person, or be a suicide bomber, in order to carry off a spectacular terrorist attack?

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