Sunday, December 6, 2009

Profiles in Profiling

I’m cold-bloodedly rational enough to condemn groundless bigotry while at the same time being quite accepting of accurate (or even somewhat-accurate) stereotypical generalizations. We don’t necessarily want an “inoffensive” world, we want a world of accurate perceptions, from which we can learn and based on which we can make useful decisions.

As a Manhattanite, one can’t freak out every time one sees something slightly bizarre — that would get exhausting — but must develop a certain intuitive feel for which people on the street are likely to be menacing, insane, etc. Recognizing as I do that there are something like 10 million Muslims in America and virtually no terrorist incidents, therefore, I am not prone to react with alarm to every headscarf I see or radio-transmitted call to prayer I hear.

However, last week — as I was headed to the F train to go downtown and host a Debate at Lolita Bar about NASA — I saw a shrieking, possibly Pakistani woman wearing a headscarf and oddly-bulky garments, with a struggling police officer holding each of her arms as she tried to wriggle away, shouting some sort of plaintive lamentations about her capture.

Weighing my options — while not really expecting that it would turn out to be anything more than a homeless or crazy woman — I decided it wouldn’t hurt to run down to the subway platform and hop on the first train I saw a bit quicker than usual. I mean, sure, I probably wouldn’t hear the next day that she had exploded, but a filtering rule that says “Don’t hang around while cops struggle with a shrieking apparently-Middle-Eastern woman in a crowded subway hub” is not going to cost me (or innocent Muslims) in quite the same way as would a rule that said, for instance, “Look with suspicion and hostility on every black-robed Muslim woman innocently shopping at the grocery store.”


And keep in mind this was occurring during the month that New York and places beyond are up in arms over the major 9/11-related terror trial assigned to a civilian court here, which some argue should be taking place before a military tribunal (one conservative friend of mine who just went to a large protest here against the trial/venue decision says it frustrates her that the trial will now cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to resolve when it should cost exactly one bullet).

I don’t have a strong position on this issue and would hope that everyone’s top priority when considering any trial in any venue is that the correct verdict is reached. It would be disturbing if people simply wanted military tribunals because they assume you’re found guilty there and innocent in civilian courts. That would seem to suggest a serious problem with one system or the other, quite possibly both — and people might even be right in assuming this is roughly how the two systems compare, but that ought to cause much more uproar than any single trial.

On a very different procedural note, it looks like I’ll be blogging daily this week, despite my weekly-in-December plan (and I did three entries last week as well, technically) — so apparently I am virtually incapable of blogging either more or less than once per day. That is my natural rhythm, I guess, and after a couple end-of-December weekly-weeks, I may as well return to that format — albeit with a host of new, more history-driven subject matter (and not coincidentally some steampunk), but more about that later.

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