WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO PROFILING?Our Incompetent Civilization
Sometimes we have to choose between evils.
• By BRET STEPHENS
When does a civilization become incompetent? I've been mulling the question in a number of contexts over the last year, including our inability to put a stop to Somali piracy, detain a terrorist who can neither be charged nor released, think rationally about climate change, or rebuild Ground Zero in an acceptable time frame.
But the question came to me again in Brussels on Sunday as I watched my children—ages six, four, and four months—get patted down before boarding our U.S.-bound flight. The larger-than-allowed bottle of cough syrup in my carry-on, however, somehow escaped our screener's humorless attentions.
Yes, the screener in this case was Belgian, not American. Yes, terrorists come in any number of skin colors, and they aren't above strapping explosives to their own children. And yes, the Obama administration took a half-step toward sanity by ordering additional screening of passengers from 14 countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, home of Flight 253 would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But here's a predictive certainty: Not one non-Muslim from any of these countries (or others such as Egypt or Jordan, which were oddly excluded from the list) will ever become a suicide bomber. The localized case of Sri Lanka's Tamils aside, suicide bombing is a purely Islamic phenomenon. Note that during the whole of the intifada there was not a single case of a Palestinian Christian blowing himself up, making a nonsense of the view that Israel's checkpoints and curfews and security fences were the main cause of the terror.
So as Homeland Security, TSA and the rest of the government's counterterrorism apparatus struggle to upgrade travel security in a way that doesn't involve freeze-drying passengers in their seats, it's worth noting that we have finally reached the outer bounds of a politically correct approach to airport security. To wit, the U.S. government is now going to profile Muslim passengers, albeit partially, indirectly and via the euphemism of nationality instead of religion. Insofar as actual security is concerned, it would be both more honest and effective if it dropped the remaining pretense.
The obvious rub is that profiling goes against the American grain. We shudder at the memory of previous instances of it, particularly the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. Rightly so.
But a civilization becomes incompetent not only when it fails to learn the lessons of its past, but also when it becomes crippled by them. Modern Germany, to pick an example, has learned from its Nazi past to eschew chauvinism and militarism. So far, so good. But today's Multikulti Germany, with its negative birth rate, bloated welfare state and pacifist and ecological obsessions is a dismal rejoinder to its own history. It is conceivable that within a century Germans may actually loathe themselves out of existence.
In the U.S., our civilizational incompetence takes various forms. For instance: No country in the world collects more extensive statistical data about its own population than the U.S. And no country is as conflicted about the uses to which that data may or may not be put than the U.S. So what exactly is the point of all this measuring, collating and parsing?
Our deeper incompetence stems from an inability to recognize the proper limits to our own virtues; to forget, as Aristotle cautioned, that even good things "bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage."
Thus we reject profiling on the commendable grounds that human beings ought not to be treated as statistical probabilities. But at some point, the failure to profile puts innocent lives recklessly at risk. We also abhor waterboarding for the eminently decent reason that it borders on torture. But there are worse things than waterboarding—like allowing another 9/11 to unfold because we recoil at the means necessary to prevent it. Similarly, there are worse things than Guantanamo—like releasing terrorists to Yemen so they can murder and maim again (and so we can hope to take them out for good in a "clean" Predator missile strike).
Put simply, we do not acquit ourselves morally by trying to abstain from a choice of evils. We just allow the nearest evil to make the choice for us.
And so it goes. We can be proud of how deeply we mourn the losses of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a nation that mourns too deeply ultimately becomes incapable of conducting a war of any description, whether for honor, interest or survival. We rightly care about the environment. But our neurotic obsession with carbon betrays an inability to distinguish between pollution and the stuff of life itself. We are a country of standards and laws. Yet we are moving perilously in the direction of abolishing notions of discretion and judgment.
One of life's paradoxes is that we are as often undone by our virtues as by our vices. And so it is with civilizations, ours not least.
Is Profiling the Solution to Stopping Terrorists?
Posted: 04 Jan 2010 07:42 PM PST BY SULTAN
The Northwest Flight 253 bombing attempt has once again reignited the debate over using profiling as a security technique. Many have pointed out over the years that ethnic profiling could have stopped the attacks of September 11. And it probably could have. But profiling alone is not the solution.
First of all let's concede that America's intelligence capabilities are virtually useless. Shoe bomber Richard Reid was spotted by the Israelis. British intelligence knew about Umar. Nidal Malik Hasan did everything but walk around within the military establishment carrying a sign, "I Will Kill You All". And had he even actually carried such a sign, it's not at all clear that it would have made any difference.
For any kind of profiling to work, you have to put aside political correctness and pay attention. Profiling is an important tool, but one that has to be used within the context of a solid intelligence and counter-terrorism strategy. Israel's El Al is not terrorist free simply because Israel profiles Arab terrorists. It has the track record that it does because the profiling is done by personnel who are trained by a security establishment intimately familiar with Islamic terrorism.
The difference between bad profiling and good profiling is the competence of the personnel doing the profiling. A bad cop stops all black men after a crime in which the suspect was described as African-American. A good cop looks not simply at race but at clothes, body language, walk and also his mental database of potential suspects he's familiar with from previous run-ins. Anyone can do the former, but it takes training and an intimate familiarity with the side of the street you're working to do the latter. More importantly it takes good intelligence. Because your profiling is only good to be as good as your database.
Outside of spy movies, the US has never been very good at intelligence. President Woodrow Wilson rejected the idea, arguing that gentlemen don't read each other's mail. Which explains handily how the Lusitania was sunk, the Black Tom explosion that took out two million tons of ammunition and damaged the Statue of Liberty, the German germ warfare plot against the US could all take place on his watch during WW1.
Things never really got much better since then. WW2's OSS was America's best group of foreign operatives, and they were cowboys, ragged and undisciplined, going off on their own tangents, and producing hit and miss results. Meanwhile for all the mythology of the CIA, the organization is basically the State Department with a more menacing air. And the State Department is 90 percent of what's wrong with American foreign policy.
After 9/11, consolidation and intel sharing were supposed to be the order of the day. Instead of ending the chaos, we instead immortalized it. In the last decade, the ability of US intelligence services to distinguish between good intel and bad intel, to actually know when a threat was coming and counter it, have not been very good. The FBI has been moderately decent at breaking up a few cells in the early stages of an operation, and entrapping one or two others, but they've been hamstrung by White Houses and US Attorneys with an open door policy toward Islamist groups. The CIA has been as useful or useless as it was during the Cold War.
Getting serious about stopping terrorists before they strike would mean tearing down the US foreign intelligence establishment and rebuilding it along the lines of the UK's SIS or France's DCRI or Israel's Mossad. Right now US foreign intelligence is run by people who are often friendlier to the enemy than they are to us, virtually useless at actually moving information through the pipeline and incapable of seeing even big developments like India and Pakistan's nuclear programs until it blows up in their faces.
Having a solid intelligence agency means an agency that doesn't use Muslims or people with dubious backgrounds as translators. It doesn't use analysts who are more sympathetic to the terrorists than they are to the US. It doesn't use station chiefs who work for foreign governments or go native and adopt the viewpoint of the enemy. It means an agency that isn't held hostage to its own political culture and is actually capable of gathering solid intelligence, instead of repeating embassy cocktail party chatter and including that in intelligence briefings. Until that happens our ability to do smart profiling will be very limited, because it's hard to be smart without useful intelligence.
And smart profiling means being aware of your own blind spots before the terrorists spot them first. In Israel for example, security personnel can tell apart Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries, from actual Arabs, but suicide bombers have dressed up as Orthodox Jews, because Israel's security personnel tend to be secular and therefore less familiar with Orthodox Jews. And in the Mumbai attacks, a Jewish couple from New York could not be expected to tell apart a Pakistani Muslim terrorist from Indian Beta Israel. Just as airport personnel genuinely familiar with Africa would not have mistaken Umar for a Sudanese refugee. These kind of blind spots always exist, which is why familiarity with potential attackers and intelligence is key when it comes to smart profiling.
Nevertheless even dumb profiling is valuable. It can help screen out a terrorist at a crucial moment. Most terrorists after all do fit the profile. The 9/11 and 7/7 attacks might have been prevented through dumb profiling alone. Which means dumb profiling is still a good deal better than nothing at all.
But like any defensive tool, the value of profiling is being eroded by the gains being made by the enemy. As Islamism expands beyond its base in the Middle East, and even beyond Asia, it becomes less dependent on terrorists who can be so easily profiled. For the moment the vast majority of Islamic terrorists are still middle eastern men, but they are increasingly drawing converts who are Scotch-Irish, Latino, Jewish and Chinese. And while they don't have enough right now that they could carry out another 9/11 without relying on Middle Eastern men. It might only take another decade before they could.
Europe in particular is generating a large number of converts to Islam, as are African-Americans and Latinos. These converts are often a good deal more radicalized than even born Muslims, and more violent. This will allow the Middle Eastern and Asian Islamic terrorist groups to carry out their attacks using people who look and sound like Americans, Canadians or Brits or Aussies. And the longer we remain on the defensive and tolerate Islamist buildups within our borders, the more of our own people will become recruited into the Jihadist network.
Middle Eastern terrorism is only a stopgap for Islam, until it can establish its own beachheads on our shores. The next stage of their program does not involve more Middle Eastern men getting on planes, it involves Imams preaching Jihad, and turning Americans into terrorists. Like Communism, Islam is an expansionist ideology whose second stage involves a domestic insurgency. Thus the next stage of the Jihad will rely on Islamist groups in America, the UK and France composed of second and third generation immigrants, as well as converts, who will carry out attacks in the name of imposing Sharia. That is already beginning to happen in the UK. It will come to America too.
Ethnic profiling therefore comes with a built in expiration date. The longer we allow Islamists to use our countries as a base, the sooner ethnic profiling will cease to be a useful tool. The coming threat is not from Yemeni, Saudi and Pakistani men, but from their American, English and Canadian pupils. Ethnic profiling worked when there was an ocean between us and Islam, but now Islam is here and is working to embed the next generation of its insurgency into our children.