New York City police are prowling subway and train stations for possible terrorists. They say they're stopping travelers "at random," but I'm happy to report that they are (unintentionally) lying. Because they have also said (reports the New York Sun) that they'll only stop people with "cumbersome containers or backpacks," or "wearing bulky coats" inappropriate for summer, or seeming "nervous." So they're not checking "at random."
Good for them. The police can't check everyone. Naturally, they identify easily visible characteristics that terrorists are likely to have, then concentrate on people who have them. That is, they work from a profile - which should be as complete as possible. Even if it becomes a dreaded "racial profile."
Terrorists are rare. If you fit the profile, it only means that you are more likely than other people to be a terrorist. But most people who fit are completely innocent. And some who don't fit are guilty. No responsible police force can rely on profiles exclusively. Alert, flexible observers are always the best detectors of terrorists. Still, information is the most important antiterror weapon. Profiles summarize the best current information.
If "looks like a young Muslim" or "looks Middle Eastern" is an easily visible characteristic that terrorists are likely to have, it belongs in the profile. But that's racial profiling, some people will say. And racial profiling is bad, not to mention illegal. When police stop blacks merely because of their race, the overwhelming majority are innocent of any crime. All Americans, they say, must be treated equally!
But the same holds true for bulky-backpack wearers - the overwhelming majority are innocent of any crime; all are entitled to equal treatment.
Ideally, a profile would list characteristics that identify all criminals and only criminals, but usually there are no such (easily visible) characteristics.
So the real question is this: Are we eager enough to prevent the crime in question to stop people (like bulky-backpack wearers or travelers who appear to be Middle Eastern) who we know might be guilty but almost certainly aren't? Are we willing to impose this inconvenience on many innocent people who fit the profile just to find a few guilty ones?
If the goal is to preempt "ordinary" crimes (say theft or robbery) that hurt only a few individuals, the coldblooded answer is probably no. If the goal is to preempt a terrorist attack that might hurt the whole nation, the answer ought to be yes.
Once we've decided to use profiles, we should make them complete. A complete profile is as likely to promote fairness as damage it. If I'm carrying a bulky backpack and you look Middle Eastern, and both items belong in the profile - why should I be stopped and not you? Equality doesn't mean you get a pass or special privileges just because your skin is dark or you appear Middle Eastern. You might argue that dark-skinned people are a special case, given the way the United States has treated them. I agree - we have treated them so solicitously, and worked so hard to suppress racial prejudice, that dark-skinned people owe their country the benefit of the doubt.
The US doesn't deserve gratitude for not doing wrong. But no nation in history has ever worked harder to correct a fault than the US has to end racial prejudice. We've earned the right to expect everyone who fits a security profile to grin and bear it.
Which doesn't make it any less of a pain to match a profile. As a graduate student traveling alone in early-1980s Europe, I sometimes matched terrorist profiles and got stopped. (In those days, European terrorist groups were bigger problems than Islamic terrorism.) Today, I look like a bearded, troublemaking professor, and I still get stopped occasionally in airports.
But the fact remains that profiling is logical in loads of circumstances, from deciding who should get flu shots to choosing whom to chat with when you don't know anyone at a party. Profiling means making smart choices when you have nothing but externals to go by.
Good citizenship - remember that phrase? - requires that we cooperate with the authorities as they work to head off the next terror attack. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and the nation's first neoconservative president, put it well: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
How to deal with profiling? Take it like a New Yorker, with a shrug.
• David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. ©2005 Los Angeles Times.