Sh*t Happens Provoking the Wrath of Khan

A famous Bollywood actor, a Mr. Khan, was stopped at an American airport for that extra search.   He claims it is because he has a Muslim name.   Read this absurd article and look at some of the comments.   If it doesn’t annoy you, you might indeed be deluded yourself.

Khan and I have some things in common.  I got that extra search at airports several times, so did Mariza and Espen (when he was only 12).  If airports are profiling, I am not sure why I come up so often.  Maybe it is my Midwestern accent or my blue eyes.  I suspect it is my baldness.  Bald men suffer terrible discrimination. I still cannot explain Espen or Mariza, however.

This whole profiling thing at airports is BS.  Airport personnel are extraordinarily careful NOT to do it.  In fact, they go too far, IMO, searching grandmothers in wheelchairs at the same rate they search healthy young men.  Yes, granny COULD be a bad one.  But you have to go with the probabilities. 

Speaking of probabilities, nobody has ever been able to show a statistical probability of being searched at an airport  based solely on race or ethnicity.  There are lots of suppositions and innuendo but no facts.  Of course, there are other factors that sometimes correlate, but as we all learn in Statistics 101, correlation is not causality.   In my case I think I was “profiled” because I traveled several times to particular areas of the world and I was often traveling on one-way tickets.   These things are uncommon enough to raise a little suspicion.  But who knows?

It is more likely that simple random chance is the cause.  Random chance will NOT spread out evenly.  In fact, if you find perfectly even results, you can be sure that random chance is NOT involved.  It is counter intuitive but true. 

If airport security stops me, two Irish students, a couple from Milwaukee returning from Polish-fest and Khan, who do you think is being “profiled”.  If you answered “none of the above” you are correct.   But will any journalists reporting on this know or care?   Indeed, it will look wrong.   But sometimes we have to accept looking wrong when doing the right thing. 

Consider the amusing case of Bob Dylan.  He evidently is a complete unknown to many in the younger generation and somebody called the cops because he seemed suspicious as he walked around a residential neighborhood.  Was he profiled? I suppose he was based on his behavior.   The reports didn’t mention any other sort of profiling because it wouldn’t make sense, so we just pass it off.  It doesn’t make any more sense to claim profiling at the airport.

We are not energetic  enough in defending ourselves against these accusations. There, IMO, are three big reasons.   Most serious is that we don’t want to “look wrong” or seem intolerant, so we accept a hypersensitivity to perceived slights as natural.  We preemptively apologize and feel guilty for the operation of random chance.

The second is related to privacy rules. Government offices often CANNOT defend themselves because their accusers have privacy rights. I remember the frustration of trying to explain denied visa cases.  As a press attaché I would get calls from journalists saying that someone had been treated unfairly at the Embassy and what was my comment.  Even if I knew the particular circumstance, the person was lying or there was a really good reason why he/she didn’t get a visa, all I could do was quote the general rules.  His privacy rights protected his dishonesty and our “no comment” was seen as an admission of guilt.  

But the biggest reason we don’t properly defend ourselves is a simple misunderstanding of random chance coupled with a human tendency at infer patterns even where they don’t exist.  Kids play the game of looking for faces or animal figures in clouds.  Seaching for patterns is hardwired into our thinking. If I randomly choose ten people, each will come up with a reason – good or bad – why he/she was “singled out.”   And he/she will believe it, but it won’t be true.   

The “shit happens” argument is often valid, but never sounds very convincing. The fictional pattern is usually more interesting.  More nefarious in our litigious society if you can impose a pattern, you might be able to hit the jackpot with some kind of payout. 

Profiling makes for a good story. It sells newspapers and books. It provides publicity for upcoming movies.   It allows people to at once pose as victims and vindicators as they “stick it to the man.”   Sometimes it is even true, but more often there are better but boring explanations.

Bigotry and Racism

As long as I am ranting about these things, let me just give another example. This is from a story in the NYT.  I have put in a blank space to give you a chance to picture the kind of person who would make such a comment.  Tell me if you think that is racist before you look at the article.  If you heard a neighbor disparaging an ethnic or national group in those terms, what would you call it? Would such a blanket condemnation of a whole group ever be justified?  

“You should know that we hate all ____. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you.”