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.