Losing the Country, One Profile at a Time

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama really knows how to take the worst excesses of the Bush administration, put his own liberal-sounding cover on them, and make them more insidious, intrusive, and harmful than Bush's clunkiness ever permitted. He institutionalizes, where he ought to deinstitutionalize. He legitimizes, where he ought to challenge, write off, and scrub. Ever the team player, he's been happy to inherit the entire unconstitutional intelligence-and-profiling setup from his predecessor, and he's interested only in perpetuating the civil liberties assault in a way that sounds good enough to liberals.

Oh, what a terrible hypocrite we have on our hands! The color of his skin ought not to make him immune to criticism of repressive measures, such as the decision, announced April 1, to put a new spin on screening airline passengers:

After the Christmas Day panic, travelers from 14, mostly Islamic, countries were automatically subject to extra screening. But this is the kind of rude, overt, in-your-face profiling that doesn't sit well with liberals. Why only those 14 countries? And what about the Richard Reids of the world, whose European passports give them an allegedly safe pass?

So what does the administration come up with? Not to do away with the whole folly of profiling, which leads to countless errors, ruins lives, and yields negative or counterproductive results, but to institutionalize it in a liberal-sounding manner. Henceforth, it won't just be 14 countries. It'll be everyone from every country, based on--based on what? Criteria that are so nebulous as to be meaningless, so broad as to include every single human being on earth, based on the subjective whims of U.S. law enforcement.

Here is the philosophy in Janet Napolitano's words:

"These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats."

Let's take this statement of omnipotence apart:

"Threat-based" can be perpetually revised, infinitely accommodated, fluidly manipulated to mean anything and everything. If we take all prior threats, add to them current threats, and pile on future, anticipated or unanticipated, visualizable or unimaginable threats, then we've got every situation accounted for. The key word is "intelligence"--they want to make it sound as if they are not profiling individuals, which of course they are, but that somehow it is specific intelligence that is prompting them to halt individuals for additional screening--or let's just call it police harassment, since that is what it is. "Multiple, random layers of security"--not simply 14 countries, or individuals with specific names to match against known terrorists, but John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness fantasy again; all fragments of information which converge on bureaucratic myths of what constitutes a terrorist must and will enter the picture. We have just exploded the profiling business wide open. I particularly love the "seen and unseen" touch, very Rumsfeldesque. "Evolving" terrorist threats--they are never static, they evolve into ever more superior and undetectable threats, expanding their tentacles into every area of our life. Who knows, I might be a terrorist in the making, but just don't know it! I might need law enforcement to do the right checks on me, to make me aware of the killer inside me. They can connect the dots, oh yes, that's what they do.

So it's all about connecting dots, and let's rest easy about that. Obama is not interested in seizing unconstitutional authority to surveil and harass ordinary persons going about their business--of course, he isn't. This is not the Soviet Union. Besides, 97% of the names on the vast watch list (400,000 names, we're told) are of "foreigners." Does that include permanent residents? Visa-holding students? Naturalized citizens? It's a particularly fishy term to use in this context.

The problem, actually, is too much data, too much disinterest in locating and correcting actual terrorist threats, which tend to be local and identifiable and traceable, and instead sweeping it all in--again, to use a Rumsfeldian conceit. Because Mohammed Atta was said to be carrying a U.S. driver's license, the logical conclusion that followed from that was that all "foreigners" (permanent and temporary residents, visa holders, etc.) must have restricted access to driver's licenses. And while we're at it, let's kick out 12 million "illegal aliens," because they might have access to those driver's licenses, and might do us harm with those handy cards in their possession. It's as if the driver's license becomes the motivator for terrorism, rather than a mere instrument. And because we didn't pay attention (or chose not to pay attention) to the young Nigerian student's father personally going to the embassy to give us all the information we needed, now we must first designate all his countrymen as potential terrorists, and then, not satisfied with that, extend that designation to all humanity. Real-time, seen and unseen, evolving threats.

You could be an MIT teaching fellow from Algeria, who recently traveled to Thailand (maybe with your girlfriend), and on the way back stopped in Istanbul. You are a prime subject for further screening--sorry, harassment, maybe being kicked out and having your life ruined, if it so pleases bureaucrats, who must justify their ways to Homeland Security, after all. All sorts of data might feed into your profile. Maybe you study nuclear physics. Or maybe not, that's too obvious. You're a humanist, you study Lacan and Derrida (though they are arch anti-humanists) in the literature department, but you once donated money to some charity that has since become questionable. You often visit Manhattan on the weekends (it's to see your girlfriend's parents, one suffering from Alzheimer's, and another a prostate cancer survivor), but it sounds suspicious. All right, suppose you do none of those things. You came here fifteen years ago, are a plodding student, and more interested in keeping a low profile than anything else. You do not have a white girlfriend; you're a thirty-seven-year-old virgin who watches a lot of porn. Okay, let's strike out the porn, let's make you really uninteresting. But boy, does that sound suspicious! Why don't you have a girlfriend? Why have you never visited Algeria? You've got problems with your family, or something? Are you some kind of loner hatching a terrorist plot? You have no known connections to a mosque--indeed, you proudly declared "atheist" on the hospital form when you were checked for a slight case of asthma. But you could just be a lone wolf--that's the kind of terrorist we're really after these days, now that the myth of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed stands pretty nearly shredded.

You get the point. Anyone is potentially a terrorist. We've taken one more huge step toward institutionalizing this idea. Now you don't even need to be from those godforsaken x number of Muslim countries anymore. You could have been here all your life. You may not have an accent at all. But data is streaming in, in a general sense, pointing to gathering threats, that involve men and women in their teens and twenties and thirties and forties and fifties being recruited by seen and unseen leaders. We're just connecting dots. We're just keeping the public safe. One picture, one image, one traveler, one journey, one life at a time.

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