Thursday, July 28, 2005

The failure of random searching

I wrote last week about the NYPD's random searches of NYC subway passengers. So far, the searches have failed miserably. They're a step along the slippery slope toward a police state, they're inconveniencing innocent people, they're diverting police from other duties, and they don't make New York one whit safer.

My personal experience is that I've yet to see any NYPD at the major subway entrances that I use, let alone be searched. I was running a little late and took taxis on Monday and Tuesday mornings, but since Friday morning, that's still six times that, at major subway entrances, I haven't once seen the NYPD. This includes the busy shuttle subway from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square.

The police are only refusing entry to people who won't submit to searches; they're not detaining or questioning anyone. A few people have been arrested for things like drugs and weapons, but those weren't terror-related. Those people were also pretty stupid, because searches are voluntary: you can always turn around. Of course, a terrorist wouldn't submit to a search. Since he'd be denied entry at worst, what's to prevent him from walking several blocks to the nearest subway entrance and trying his luck there? What's to prevent several operatives from entering at the same time? Odds are that most will get through, and any who are stopped for searches can simply refuse and turn around.

The plain truth is that these searches can't possibly stop terrorists, regardless of their national origin, religion or motivation. They're a token gesture that make people feel safer when they really aren't. They're an illusion that Bloomberg is "doing something," especially since this is, dare I point it out, an election year. Woodrow Wilson swept to re-election on "He kept us out of war" (which he eventually reneged on). Perhaps "He's kept New York safe" could work for Bloomberg?

And then there's the statistical problem of random searches. The police will stop an elderly Caucasian woman with the same probability as they will a man of Middle Eastern appearance. It makes no sense to stop someone with a virtually zero probability of being a terrorist, which is why Michelle Malkin departed from pro-search conservatives, criticizing the searches. However, she does support searches (and thus ignores the Fourth Amendment): it's that she wants profiling, because random searches are fruitless. That's an excellent point.

But then we run into the problem of profiling: how can you tell someone's Middle Eastern? On the train home this past Monday, I sat across from three men, somewhat dark complexions, darker-skinned, with some sort of ethnic appearance. They wore business suits (something the Al Qaeda manual specifies for effective mingling with Westerners) and were chattering excitedly in heavily accented English. One of them seemed quite concerned about another train's timetable, and I wouldn't be surprised if some passengers thought they were Muslim terrorists. They fit the general profile, right?

Their accents were Hindi, though; I've met enough foreign-born Indians to know. So there was nothing to worry about, especially when I considered terrorists wouldn't bother blowing up the last car of a train. However, how many NYPD, or Americans for that matter, would have mistaken them for being "Middle Eastern" and stopped them? Remember that in the aftermath of 9/11, a man in Arizona shot someone merely because he thought the victim's turban meant he was Muslim. Actually, he was Sikh. A lot of Americans can't distinguish between Chinese and Japanese by physiognomy alone, so what makes us think the police can always identify who's Middle Eastern? Especially when many people are passing quickly through the turnstiles, some Middle Eastern men could look Caucasian or even Hispanic. Are we, then, to resort to the absurdity of stopping all Hispanic-looking men who might be Middle Eastern?

Even if we can accurately tell who's Middle Eastern, we'll target far more innocent people than guilty, and worse: we'll turn an entire ethnic group (and people who look like them) into second-class people. Let us be mindful of what Abraham Lincoln said: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot retain it."

As much as I have hated Saddam for 15 years, as much as I hate Osama, I must not let it extend to hating entire peoples who are innocent. Middle Eastern does not equate with either Muslim or terrorist. My late father had traveled in the Middle East, in the late 1960s when Beirut and Tehran were jewels. One of his friends was a Christian Arab. This gentleman told my father about when he sat next to a fellow Arab on an airplane. The other man struck up a conversation and eventually began invectives against Jews and Christians, then suddenly asked, "You're not one of them, are you?" My father's friend simply replied, "I am...Arab."

I had a co-worker who is Iranian and converted to Christianity. He has very fair skin and could pass for European, even after his Farsi accent that's inscrutable to most Americans (myself included). How could he be profiled?

Consider the difference between these two statements' profiles:
Bank robber, fleeing NE on Main Street, 5'10" to 6', 200 pounds.

Stop all people who look Middle Eastern, they might be terrorists.
The first has a precise description of a known suspect, with sufficient probable cause to stop someone in the vicinity who fits the description. The second has nothing more than paranoid fear: no description of a known suspect, no evidence that a crime will be committed, and thus no probable cause at all to stop anyone.

I get more and more shocked at NYC-based WABC radio's conservative talk shows, which since Friday are full of callers who demand profiling. Just what does a Muslim terrorist look like? There's a reason the Al Qaeda manual tells the operatives to be clean-shaven with short hair, and dressed neatly in Western clothing. There's no way we can profile terrorists who know how to blend in, and meanwhile we're trampling the rights of innocent people. There's no way that even the strictest of profiling can stop every terrorist. It only takes one to slip through, and the random searches are so bungled that they won't deter terrorists at all. Still, some politician or police official will eventually claim that the searches are successful, that they've thwarted terrorist attacks -- which wouldn't have happened anyway.

We're also establishing a dangerous precedent that the police can acquire a few more authoritative powers anytime there's a vague and merely potential threat, because the situation supposedly demands it "in the interest of public safety." I can't help but think of Ben Franklin's warning: "Those who trade essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

And now we have New Yorkers being friendly. Too friendly. They're volunteering to have their bags searched once they see NYPD at the turnstiles. Isn't that great? Someone trying to be helpful might distract a cop right when a real terrorist is slipping through. Not that the NYPD's random searches had a very good chance of catching the terrorist, anyway.

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