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Play Poker, Not Roulette


The rhetoric about profiling as a means to inhibit terrorists assumes what I’ll call biographic profiling. The knee-jerk opponents to profiling like to charge “Racism!” or “Fill-in-the-blank-ophobia!” when it is suggested that there are visual clues about who might deserve more scrutiny. And the knee-jerk reaction to the first jerks is to accept those terms. “Fine! Call me a racist, but why are we groping grannies when zero grannies have exploded airliners?”

They’re both missing the point. Their notion of profiling seems based in some kind of TV-influenced detective drama. Serial killers, for example, show many similar biographical traits. By examining evidence at a crime scene, the profiler can make educated guesses about who they’re looking for.

But all that kind of evidence is static. Biography is history. Like skin tone, the past is beyond anyone’s control.

The kind of profiling that is should be used to inhibit terrorist is behavioral profiling. That’s explicitly different from racial profiling, unless you believe that all Asians are genetically consigned to make armpit farts when they’re nervous—to invent an example.

The most effective check, as many analysts have commented, remains the human one, Israeli-style, designed to detect bombers rather than bombs. The system works: every passenger in the queue for the check-in at Ben-Gurion airport, or for any El Al flight elsewhere, is questioned, if only for a few seconds, by a trained ‘selector,’ who can basically conclude within a few seconds from someone’s reactions - body language and facial expressions more than verbal responses - to questions such as ‘Where did you come from just now?’ and ‘Did you pack your bags yourself and did anyone give you anything to take to someone else at your destination?’ who might be a potential threat from who is just the average tourist.

It’s not what people look like, it is the way they carry themselves that offers clues about near-term intentions. Would a poker player call a bluff just because he knows opponents with Arab features just have to over-represent their hands? No. The poker player reads the actions and expressions around the table, not the family histories of his opposition. A roulette player, on the other hand, picks a color and takes his chances.

Maybe we should put Doyle Brunson in charge of transportation security. But that could only happen if we all recognize which kind of profiling counts when the chips are down.


Neo-neocon more aptly calls it “demographic profiling”. But she still falls into the standard frame of deciding who might be a terrorist by playing roulette (based on colors or arbitrary/random numbers).