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The Rise of the Tele-Profiler: Pop Psychologist of the 21st Century

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I’m beginning to feel inadequate for not either being part of some reality show or rising to the position of pundit in the infotainment ecosystem.

I can dream. There’s one area I believe I can fit in, and my status as an upright sentient being makes me nominally qualified. This position is Profiler, someone who can apply pop psychology and intuition to a situation or person and project what they have done or will do in the future.

More and more television shows are using these very clever individuals to provide a sketch of a kidnapper, embezzler, or pedophile. They operate on as little as hearsay and audiotape; information including letters, 911 calls, and even body language is fed into the profiler’s data mill and what comes out is composite sketch of the likely culprit. Sort of like a police sketch artist rendering, with none of the art but a lot of rendering.

On the one hand this sort of thing can be perfectly harmless, like some guy guessing weight at the state fair. At the other end of course there are the Army McCarthy hearings and the application of a communist profile to innocent bystanders. In between there is the grasping at anything that will assuage our fear of the possible, even if it is improbable. The Japanese-Americans during WWII were profiled out of their homes and communities into concentration camps.

Of course “profile” (a description of a person or group) is not the only noun in this suspect lexicon. Stereotype (an oversimplified image of a person), typecast (assigning someone to the same role they seem to be made for), and social classification (as in British classification through heredity or or by manners, education and community status) are terms that bring on similar attacks on a victim’s quality of life. But the problem with any such profiling is many of us still bear the ethnic imprint of a hereditary homeland.

It is possible to construct a basic profile for every nationality. But what is the point of doing so in a crime-solving effort? Whether it is a kidnapping or a terrorist plot, we are looking for the edge cases, not someone fitting the nominal profile. The profile, which is the equivalent of raw data, does little to inform us about people at the fringes. Actual knowledge of culprits and threats can only be acquired through hard work aided by appropriate technology. Since kidnappers and terrorists are rarely career practitioners of their adopted crafts, they are usually sloppy at it. It is often the most single-minded desperadoes with laser focus who are willing to martyr themselves for some self-righteous cause. Knowledge of their emotional state or intent can only be determined by those who know the suspect — and that only points them out as individuals to be watched.

It’s time to recognize the silliness of the profiling we are promoting and continue to focus on the hard police work that is uncovering culprits before they can act. For those countries that harbor terrorists, the inconvenience of additional hoops to jump through to get a visa or pass inspection before boarding an aircraft will be their reward. We should continue to invest in innovators creating technology that helps us identify dangerous substances in packed luggage. But it’s also time to recognize that harassment and inconvenience in our current profiling practices diminishes our quality of life without increasing safety for any of us — net win for terrorists and others who wish us ill.

Let’s stop being reactionary and begin being pre-emptive. We have enough screening technology, well-identified rogue countries to watch, and reported names and profiles of bad guys to work with. We will never eliminate the threat completely but can take comfort in the fact that so many plots are unsuccessful and uncovered the old-fashioned way: infiltration, community involvement, and appropriate non-intrusive technologies.

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About roguebutterfly

  • http://etierphotography.blogspot.com/ FCEtier

    “It’s time to recognize the silliness of the profiling we are promoting and continue to focus on the hard police work that is uncovering culprits before they can act.” Reminds me of “The Minority Report” by Phillip K. Dick.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz Alan Kurtz

    Your article is woefully unspecific. You deplore “Tele-Profilers” populating the “infotainment ecosystem” without saying who they are. “More and more television shows are using these very clever individuals to provide a sketch of a kidnapper, embezzler, or pedophile,” you contend without citing any such show or profiler.

    Instead you resort to yesteryear, alleging that the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings applied a communist profile to “innocent bystanders.” Like who? Perhaps you’re suggesting that Fred Fisher, an associate of the Army’s grandstanding counsel Joseph Welch, was somehow “profiled” because McCarthy let drop that Fisher once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which the U.S. Attorney General called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.” Welch parried that clumsy thrust so theatrically (“Until this moment, Senator, I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness …”) that the only reputation damaged was McCarthy’s. Moreover, even if McCarthy was an early Tele-Profiler, those hearings transpired more than half a century ago. What is their relevance today?

    You also offer a straw man argument against constructing “a basic profile for every nationality” in the service of solving or preventing crimes such as kidnapping or a terrorist plot. As far as I know, the last kidnapper in this country profiled according to his nationality was Bruno Hauptmann, and that was 75 years ago!

    As for terrorists, with your background as an employee of the National Security Agency, you may be privy to insider information as to the role of profiling in foiling conspiracies. But your service ended in the 1970s, and techniques have improved mightily. Whereas profiling back then may have done “little to inform us about people at the fringes,” as you claim, advances in computerized pattern recognition, database mining and other state-of-the-art techniques have transformed the landscape. But again, what does this have to do with Tele-Profilers polluting our infotainment ecosystem?

    “It’s time to recognize the silliness of the profiling we are promoting,” you conclude. What do you mean we? Just who is promoting the profiling you consider silly? If you mean some lighthearted segment on a frivolous TV show, then you’re giving it more weight than it deserves. If, on the other hand, you’re denigrating the serious efforts by law enforcement to identify security risks, you’re way off base.