Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | August 20, 2010

They Know It When They See It

“Profiling” is in the news again, after the apparently bogus hijacking threat against an American Airlines jet at San Francisco airport yesterday. The muted media coverage is worth noting; if Obama weren’t in the Oval Office, passengers who came off an airliner announcing that they had just witnessed profiling would be given a lot more air time and column space. But what really jumps out at the reader is how impressionistic the perception of profiling is. No two observers seem to use the same criteria.

The story, in brief, is that an anonymous phone call was made to a business in Alameda, during which the caller said AA Flight 24 to New York would be hijacked. While the plane was being held on the ground, two passengers, a man and a woman traveling together, were handcuffed and escorted off. Most news consumers probably haven’t heard that they were Pakistanis traveling on Pakistani passports. They were released quickly and allowed, with the other passengers, to rebook their flights.

Reading the AP account of the alleged profiling is like listening to second-graders explain something to each other: there’s much certainty and bustle but not a lot of precision. The FBI spokesman said the two passengers were selected for reasons he couldn’t discuss. The two passengers themselves told reporters they were informed that they were selected at random. But this third passenger wasn’t buying it:

Michael Anderson, 20, saw the couple at the American Airlines ticket counter after all the passengers were let off the detained plane and observed them carrying passports from Pakistan.

“It definitely seems like it was racial profiling, based on what they look like physically and the fact they are Pakistani. It seems like this was a false accusation,” said Anderson, a Yale University sophomore who was heading back to school.

Another passenger saw it differently:

Kidd said he and his wife did not believe the couple had been racially profiled based on appearances alone. The man wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and the woman was wearing a beret, and they looked like typical Californians, he said.

I defy a forensic analyst to deduce from these collated communications what the definition of “profiling” is. The word is unquestionably freighted, wielded like a talisman for political purposes. But do we really all agree on what it means?

I, for one, would say that profiling did occur in this situation: passport profiling. The airline knows which passengers, in which seats, are traveling on foreign passports.  That’s what the FBI would look at: nationality, immigration status, ultimate destination, travel history. Those pieces of information are all at law enforcement’s fingertips.

And I would ask what could possibly be wrong, when a plane has been threatened, with questioning the Pakistani passengers? How, for example, is it smart to pat down and X-ray my 70-year-old mother on principle, whenever she flies, but wrong to question passengers of one of the top two nationalities in Islamist terrorism when there has been an actual, specific threat?

Blathering about “profiling” is much like blathering about “racism”:  terrific fun for politics, problematic for legal language or evidence in law. This couple wasn’t taking the kids out for ice cream.  They were on a passenger jet bound for New York with 172 other people on it, and a hijacking threat had been made against this particular flight.  Was it prohibited profiling, to question these passengers because they were traveling on Pakistani passports?  Was it not “profiling” because, hey, the guy was wearing a Lakers jersey and they looked like typical Californians?

Most readers will be thinking by now of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation in the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio.  Of “obscenity,” he said:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it

As Wikipedia puts it (with a straight face, for all I know):

Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard was praised as an example of “candor” and “realistic and gallant,” though it has been criticized for its lack of concreteness.

Let’s remember those limitations of human law in our pursuit of a defect-free universe.



  1. The FBI is part of the executive branch, since we have a Democrat administration, it’s a given that their intentions are good.

    When it’s a Republican administration, it’s a given that their intentions are bad, as they are racists.

    Profiling is a regrettable necessity for a Democrat administration.

    Profiling is evidence of racism for a Republican administration.

    The double standard applies whenever agenda trumps impartiality.

    The media has traded in the operative principle of objective reportage for agenda journalism, they have long been the propaganda wing of the Democrat party and have betrayed their very reason for existing and richly deserve their coming extinction.

  2. It is difficult to know the exact percentages, but let’s assume the following: 90% of terrorist acts are committed by Islamic males between 18 and 40 years of age, who are from, or have recently visited, certain countries that are hotbeds of radical Islamic activites.

    If that is true, giving less than 90% of our attention to that demographic constitutes discrimination against the other demographics. Are we required to steadfastly deny reality to avoid the accusation of racial profiling?

    Here’s my test for the politically correct liberals: there is a terrorist on a certain airplane. You win a million dollars if you pick the terrorist passenger. Would even our most politically correct choose the 90 year old Christian grandmother from Des Moines?

    Now, if you would do that for a million dollars, could we also do it if our lives are on the line?

  3. I’m hoping for a politician of prominence to finally come out and declare that we SHOULD be profiling. There’s no good reason not to profile people regarding our security other than to appease the left. Unfortunately the very mention of the word has come to have the same meaning as racism. Regrettably, the word has also so permeated our discourse that most of America (right, center and left) has accepted it as a bad thing to do. Time for someone to throw a rock in the pond.

    I remember wishing that some prominent politician would call out “affirmative action” for the discriminatory and counter productive (except to the political left) program that it is. To my astonishment, Bob Dole did exactly that. And he managed not to suffer the political equivalent of tarred and feathered. I think a similar declaration by a Mitt Romney type about profiling is due. It may well eventually save lives.

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