Putting a face on evil

It seems that the horror is over. And now we know that the profile should have been clear just moments after the first shooting.

The perpetrator is a talkative, middle-aged man or woman who lives and works among other talkative educated middle-aged men and women. Spending most of his or her life in the shadows, cloistered from public scrutiny and talking only with others in the shadows, he or she typically responds to violence and calamity by walking toward the bright lights and suddenly speaking with stunning certainty. More mysteriously, he or she seems able to predict the future with almost mystical accuracy.

And he or she can't be stopped. Bloviating in a way that creates panic among a fearful public, almost nothing seems to be able to stop the perpetrator from wild and speculative pronouncements. So we can all be relieved that we now know, in the aftermath of three weeks of unspeakable fear, who these terrifying suspects were.

They were the psychologists, the psychiatrists, the criminologists – all the profilers – who now must answer for the veneer of certainty that they often projected as they told us what the snipers looked like, what they were thinking as they pulled the trigger, and even described the kind of food that the snipers were probably eating.

Don't misunderstand. Criminal profiling is a serious technique that cannot be dismissed because of the irresponsibility of over-eager, well-intentioned academics trying to explain it to hungry media consumers. Interviews of perpetrators in crime categories can identify typical characteristics and the statistical likelihood that these characteristics will occur. These data can in some cases help investigations narrow the population of likely offenders.

But there is a major and elementary caveat to the use of profiles – left virtually unexplained by the plethora of experts who overwhelmed us with their "expertise." Profiles tell us what the perpetrator might be like. They do not rule any suspect out or in. They are not evidence. They cannot protect us or keep us safer. And, they can often turn out to be totally wrong. I am still on the lookout for that white-supremacist loner with a crewcut and a bedroom full of neofascist literature.

But probability and statistics are tough topics to explain. They're not morsels that the 24-hour cable-news beast can easily digest. And absent even a cursory attempt to explain concepts like "standard error" or "correlation coefficient," or the potential pitfalls of profiling, profiles will continue to be pronounced with all the subtlety of divine proclamations. And rather than inform media consumers, they will simply perpetuate a culture of panic and speculation in which instant analysis always trumps complexity.

To be fair, profilers are no different from the rest of us trying to cope with a random and unsolved act of violence. Our desperation to know what is going on, to provide some explanation for the unexplainable, is an understandable public obsession during episodes of fear and frenzy. Not to have a ready explanation is to admit the most painful truth of all, that something random and temporarily unexplainable is happening. It is to risk panic rather than calm.

But it's a quintessentially human impulse to try and put a face on evil when that evil shoots from the shadows at a 13-year-old boy. Who can avoid the temptation to draw on our ready inventory of urban legends and stereotypes and prejudices, and fashion the face of evil in our imagination? Indeed, we are all natural and instinctive private "profilers," struggling with our fear and anxiety to put pieces of a puzzle together in a way that we can understand.

So why don't we all make an agreement: The next time something unspeakable happens, let's avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions simply to alleviate our anxiety.

Remember: The Arab-American sitting next to you on the airplane is almost certainly not a terrorist.

The young black male sitting across from you on the subway is almost certainly not a mugger.

The tattooed skinhead waiting in line for the concert is almost certainly not a white supremacist.

And the "profiler" making authoritative pronouncements on your favorite cable news channel is not the oracle at Delphi.

• Steven M. Gorelick has a PhD in sociology and criminology and teaches at the City University of New York.

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