Sunday, March 22, 2009

Muslim Profiling Revisited (and my ongoing exchanges with “Mr. X”)

Given the ongoing, if fitful, criticisms by a reader named “Mr. X” of my analysis on profiling in the context of Islamic terrorism, I have decided to devote a post here to my responses, since his criticisms have incidentally provoked from me useful further articulations of my analysis.

His latest criticisms were posted as a comment to a previous entry here: Racial Islamic Profiling: Photo Gallery.

Previously, Mr. X and I engaged in quite a bit of back-and-forth on this same issue (an exchange that he seems obtusely to have learned little from), in the comments field of this older 3-part essay of mine, White Muslims: Honorary Browns. The pertinent comments of Mr. X and my responses appeared mostly in Part 3.

Aside from otherwise simplistically mischaracterizing some of my positions, Mr. X persists in mushing together different spheres of this complex problem when they have distinct features that need to be kept distinct.

For example, in terms of our profiling needs in the context of Islamic terrorism, there is to be considered the general nature and logic of profiling, which has different levels.

The different levels function sort of like successive stages of filtering out and attempts at maximizing focus on the danger while simultaneously weeding out extraneous data that, because it is irrelevant to, or less relevant than, the danger, would encumber our safety needs were we to include itor at least were we to allow it to divert too much of our attention away from the danger we are trying to focus on.

Needless to say (though it seems there is a need to point out elementary things to Mr. X), the danger that is the central focus of profiling is not immediately apparent, but is ensconced in a matrix of harmless data, and the two are usually confused together: the whole point of profiling is to try our best to disentangle the two in a situation where they present themselves so mixed together, there is often no way to tell which is which, or at best it is exceedingly difficult to do so.

Thus, concomitant with the effort in profiling methodology of teasing apart these two types of data, there isto the extent that the danger is urgent and the luxury of time is not available to wait for the process of discriminating the two types of data from each other (if indeed it can ever be done)a distinct, second procedure for unavoidably including what could well be harmless data along with the dangerous data. And whenever including harmless data along with dangerous data is avoidable, it is, needless to say, avoided by rational profilers.

Thus, there are at least these two procedures of profiling. These two Mr. X seems to persist in mushing together and failing to see their important distinctions one from another.

Now, in the latter procedure described above, profilers in their duty of protecting the public do the best they can, andassuming they are rational and not deformed by PC MCin doing so factor in any data that is relevant to that duty.

Thus, in the context of Islamic terrorism, we have a global movement whose members we cannot often sufficiently pinpoint in order to weed them out by procedure #1. About these members, we know the physiognomic fact that the vast majority are non-white, and we know the physiognomic-&-cultural fact that the vast majority are non-Western. On this basis alone, it would be imprudent, if not reckless, for our profilers in the discharging of their duty, to ignore these facts whenever their duty happens to involve procedure #2.

Now, there is a formidable complication to procedure #2 in light of these two facts: and that complication is the co-existence of large numbers of non-whites and non-Westerners who are non-Muslims and thus pose no danger in the context of Islamic terrorism.

At this juncture in the analysis, the rational person will not emotionally and impulsively recoil from any attempts to grapple with this and so will not reject without further consideration all discussion of the matter, rather prejudicially declaring that the aforementioned two facts should be eliminated immediately from procedure #2 and that any contemplation of their usefulness is stupid and ethically repugnant.

No, the rational person will proceed thusly through a meditation on questions:

1) given the complication noted above, is there still a way to proceed with procedure #2 by factoring in the two aforementioned facts?

2) related to question #1, do we even have a choice, given our relative ignorance of who the enemy is at any given moment and in the context of our ongoing duty to protect the public, of deciding whether or not to so proceed per question #1?

3) what are the pros and cons of so proceeding per question #1?

4) how, concretely, would we go about doing this?

5) should imperfections inherent to proceeding per question #1--including among other things the “collateral damage” of innocents--prohibit us from even considering the efficacy of the aforementioned two facts?

6) what is the threshhold for imperfections (including “collateral damage” of innocents) beyond which a profiling procedure is no longer workable?

7) does that threshhold apply in this context, per question #1? If so, how? If not, why not?

8) if the answers to #5 and to the first question in #7 are “no”, how can we at least optimally minimize those imperfections without jeopardizing our prime directive of protecting the public?


With question #4, for example, there is not the implication (as Mr. X would simplistically and indiscriminately have it) that proceeding per question #1 must be implemented at all levels, all stages, and all venues of our profiling. There is, to the rational person, an awareness of discrimination among these levels, stages, and venues.

For example, in the context of an urgent threat where the threat level is at, or near, the highest level, and in a public situation of masses of people in constant motion within a public place of complexity and variety enabling hiding places, this context and situation, it would be prudent to engage in racial profiling. This does not mean that other more refined types of profiling cannot proceed in tandem, to the extent that they are feasible. However, the crux of the point here is that the rational person knows that there are, indeed, contexts and situations where the blunter approach that incurs lots of ‘collateral damage’ is unavoidable and necessary for the public safety. And again, they are unavoidable and necessary insofar as, and wheresoever, our ignorance of all the data compels us to cast the wider, less focused net.

Stepping back to take a somewhat wider view, we can discern successively concentric levels of profiling in the context of Islamic terrorism:

1) At the broadest most indiscriminate level, there is racial profiling, based on the facts that most Muslims are non-white and non-Western, and that most Westerners are white and non-Muslim.

2) Narrowing our focus to the next level, there is Muslim profiling, which attempts, wherever and whenever feasible, to refine level #1 not only by fine-tuning our detection of physiognomic “granularization” (the ability to discern the differences between, for example, a Moroccan and a swarthy Sicilian, or perhaps even more subtly, between a Pakistani and an Indian), but also by supplementing that with a variety of other types of information ranging from observation of clothing, paraphernalia carried by the suspect, cultural behaviors, and more conventional intelligence concerning their backgrounds, activities and associations.

3) Further narrowing of our focus takes us to the third level, at what might be called “terrorist profiling”--or, more scientifically, Jihadist profiling. This is the level at which the profiler wishes to distinguish the harmless Muslim from the dangerous Muslim, where the latter may be involved in a terrorist plot on any one or more of a variety of levels and degrees of involvement, ranging from passive enablement perhaps dependent upon a good deal of their ignorance of their own involvement, all the way to direct active involvement, and all the many shades in a spectrum between these two.

While theoretically it would be wonderful if our profilers could implement and deploy level #3 all the time, or even a majority of the time, and never have to bother with levels #2 or #1, the unfortunate fact is, the kind of information required for enjoying that luxury in an effective manner is simply not available a majority of the time (much less all the time). Indeed, it is arguable that it is never available, but I am here allowing a benefit of the doubt out of rhetorical generosity.

Thus, our profilers much of the time, if not probably most of the timedepending, of course, on the nature of the threat and of the location of the threatwill not be able to deploy level #3 to the exclusion of levels #1 and #2 (and often will not be able to deploy level #3 even in tandem with either of the other two levels because it would unduly interfere with them). Thus, they will be forced to have recourse to level #2, and at times, level #1, often exclusively.

It is also apposite to reiterate that in any given situation of profiling where level #1 is being deployed, circumstances may change quickly to warrant the deployment of the more precise levels of #2 and/or #3. On the other hand, profilers must also be prepared for the probabilityat any given time, in any given situation, where one of the levels is judged to be more effective than the other levelsthat the introduction of one of those other levels might well interfere with the effectiveness of the level currently in deployment. Thus, there would be contexts where only level #1 must be deployed, and attempts to fine-tune that level with levels #2 and/or #3 would actually serve to decrease the efficiency of the profilers and so potentially endanger more lives. And, of course, the converse is true as well.

According to the rather crudely simplex thought process of a Mr. X, however, all these important subtleties and distinctions should be tossed out the window, and Islamic terrorism should, apparently, be treated by our profilers wholly in the same terms as we treat all other dangerous crimes (or at best no different from the way we treat political criminal organizations that might have international activities, such as the Basque terrorists or the Colombian drug cartels or the
“Red” terrorists of the 70s and 80s)from our overarching theory on down to our concrete methodological particulars in the field, irrespective of the racial physiognomic data we could be using to supplement our profiling and their contexts of radiating complexities which occur in daily real life, one or two of which I have addressed above along with an analytical treatment of general consequences that flow from their consideration.

To be continued...

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