Years ago I used to say the difference between
Israel and the US was that in Israel they check your bags when you go
into the store (to prevent a terrorist attack), while in America they
check your bags when you go out (to prevent theft). But after the 9/11
terrorist attacks intrusive checks have become the norm in many places
in the US as well.
a salient, and controversial, difference is the use of profiling.
Israeli security personnel routinely concentrate their checks on
suspect populations (principally Arabs), whereas in the US profiling
among US citizens is not allowed.
However, the US policy is under renewed examination from both directions.
On the one hand, there is ongoing interest in profiling and a
debate regarding its merits. Just a few weeks ago The Wall Street
Journal featured a video story highlighting the Israeli approach and
discussing its merits and demerits.
On the other hand, the US does carry out special
searches for foreign visitors from 14 countries on a watch list. But
even this kind of profiling has recently come under attack. Last week,
a group of dozens of organizations asked the US Department of Homeland
Security to cancel the policy, which they say would result in racial
and ethnic profiling. The letter claims, somewhat disingenuously:
"Terrorism is neither ethnically nor geographically confined."
Profiling involves taking advantage of correlations between
innocent behavior and criminal acts, where there is no demonstrated
cause and effect. Having a particular skin color, or a particular
religion, is not illegal or antisocial and does not cause a person to
commit crimes. Usually we find that only a tiny fraction of members of
such groups are criminals. But at the same time we sometimes find that
a very high percentage of the criminals belong to a particular group.
There is a perceived security benefit to targeting enforcement efforts
on that group, but is it ethical to do so?
Profiling does raise important questions of equal
protection of the law. The problem is most serious regarding crimes
whose exact boundary is somewhat arbitrary.
For example, everyone has to pay taxes, but different people
pay different amounts. If one group is targeted for tax evasion, they
may justifiably ask why they have to pay more taxes than other people.
It's also forbidden to speed, but the definition of speeding varies
widely. If one group is targeted for speeding, they may ask why others
are allowed to drive faster than they are.
An additional problem is the investigation itself. Members of
profiled groups may feel inconvenienced or even humiliated at being
subjected to questioning or searches.
I believe both considerations are minimal in the case of
violent crime. No one has a right to ask why they aren't allowed to
harm others. Police and security personnel need to use all means at
their disposal to maximize their effectiveness.
It is certainly an inconvenience and perhaps even an
embarrassment to be subjected to questioning and searches, but these
problems are not alleviated merely by unnecessarily subjecting more
individuals to the same regime.
This could be likened to a disease that disproportionately
affects a certain subpopulation. There is no guilt or shame involved in
belonging to such a group, but health authorities would be well-advised
to concentrate their screening efforts on the highest-risk individuals,
even though screening is burdensome and even though most of the group's
members feel well.
But I would add two caveats: The first is the problem of side
effects. Sometimes a traveler is screened for weapons and it turns out
he is carrying drugs or diamonds or something else of interest. People
on the watch list would be disproportionately exposed to arrest for
more minor offenses. Insofar as no targeting is involved, I don't think
the problem is serious, but conceivably it would be appropriate to
limit the scope of searches to the kinds of crime that in the first
instance justify profiling.
The second problem is the potential for abuse. A group can be
harassed or demonized by claiming that it fits a profile for some
crime. Jews should be particularly sensitive to this problem, since
historically we have been frequent victims of it. It is easy to
concentrate lawenforcement efforts on Jews and to convict a small
number who are truly guilty. This harasses Jews and also gives the
impression that Jews are disproportionately criminals, when in fact
their conduct is no worse than that of others.
How can we prevent abuse of profiling without eliminating the
practice? It would be tempting to demand that the criteria for
profiling should be transparent, but then they could be easily gamed by
I think the best solution is some kind of review process; for
example, that which exists for other problematic methods of obtaining
evidence, such as wiretapping. Some accountable official could be
responsible for reviewing any security installation that wanted to
engage in profiling. This would deter the installations where profiling
is not really justified and provide review and legitimacy to those
places where such a policy is truly needed to make effective use of
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center
of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of
Technology (Machon Lev).