Monday, July 12, 2004

Flying While Swarthy

Reports like this one go with the territory when security staff are given the implicit green light to engage in racial profiling. God only knows how many times I've been the only one pulled out of a crowd and subjected to an irritating bout of questioning while some goon rifles through my belongings, and I'm not even "Middle-Eastern" looking.

India's former defence minister was twice strip-searched at Washington airport while on official business, according to the former US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott.

George Fernandes appears to have quietly swallowed the post-9/11 humiliation, recounting his experiences only in New Delhi this February to a private US group that included Mr Talbott, who tells the tale in a new book.

On an official US visit in 2002, and en route to Brazil in 2003 - the ageing politician, who likes to wear a kurta (baggy long shirt ), was strip-searched by US immigration.
Well, what does Mr. Fernandes expect? We darker-skinned types all look the same anyway, probably just a bunch of terrorists the whole lot of us ... The idiotic thing about this whole profiling business is that it assumes two extremely unlikely things, namely:
  1. That would-be terrorists with half a brain would be willing to give up the element of surprise by repeating the same old operation.
  2. That even if they really were stupid enough to wish to do the same thing twice, they'd also be stupid enough to try to do so with people who fit the "swarthy Middle Easterner" look.
"Racial" profiling (which is to say, the institutionalized "special treatment" of certain minorities) is nothing more than a way to make white Americans feel a false sense of security without imposing on them any of the costs that meaningful security measures would require. All those people who think it's "silly" to do random searches even of dear old Grandma and the teddy bear of the cute blond 3-year-old are only fooling themselves: the ridiculous assumption seems to be that "hey, they look like people I know, and people like us just can't do things like that!" Yeah, right.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's a paper from back in 2002 that looks into the mathematics of racial profiling. The unsurprising summary? It doesn't work. Only a system of random searches can be expected to defeat any attempts by terrorists to play on screeners' stereotypes, and yes, that means searching old grandmas and blonde-haired, blue-eyed young women from the Midwest as well, not just the dark-skinned and the foreign.