“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.