Debate: U.S. Airports Should Use Racial And Religious Profiling

The setup from Intelligence Squared:

On Christmas Day, 2009, twenty-three-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 using explosives hidden in his underwear. A string of missed opportunities and errors by government security agencies culminated in what President Obama would declare a “systemic failure.” Is scanning everyone with expensive, high-tech equipment the best use of limited resources? Or should we use the information that we haveā€”the knowledge that, while all Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslim.


I think this debate should be re-framed: Should law enforcement use every tool at their disposal, which includes profiling, or should they refrain from using tools that may offend some people.

In the beginning the moderator concedes the main point, that the majority of recent (within the past decade) terrorist attacks have been committed or attempted by men who have a common tie to Islam. If this is true (a fact that was never disputed), then it makes the validity of including it as a metric a foregone conclusion.

In fact, the only objections given by the opposition were

  • Judging people based on nationality is not sufficient to determine whether someone is likely to be a terrorist
  • Not all terrorists are Muslims
  • Not all Muslims are terrorists
  • Its a violation of civil liberties to question a certain group more than others

To these, the responses were given

  • Religion and race are not the only metrics used and the agents involved aren’t the only ones doing the analysis
  • The majority of terrorists in the past decade (or more) have been Muslims
  • The size of the overall population is irrelevant, what matters is the statistical likelihood that a terrorist will match the overall profile
  • Civil liberties aren’t violated by mere suspicion. They aren’t even violated by extra law enforcement attention (interrogation, scans, etc.)
  • It makes us less safe to waste law enforcement resources on “random” searches.

What this debate really highlights is how most people, even supposed “experts”, either don’t understand how statistical analysis works or deliberately choose to misconstrue the facts. It also highlights how our culture’s myopic drive towards political correctness makes us less secure as a result.

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