The Left Falls In Love With Profiling

In the wake of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum, there’s been something of a mad rush by left-wing bloggers to use the shooting to validate the now-infamous Department of Homeland Security report on “right-wing extremists.”.

There are two noteworthy aspects of this effort. One, it continues the DHS report’s willful misidintification of people like James von Brunn, the museum shooter, as “right-wing.” And two, it ultimately embraces the concept of profiling in law enforcement, in ways that liberals used to deplore.

The initial problem with this effort, as Leon and Pejman have detailed, is that von Brunn had more in common with left- than right-wingers: he railed against Christianity, “neocons,” President Bush, John McCain, and Bill O’Reilly, peddled 9/11 conspiracy theories, and had in his possession the address of another possible target: the building that houses The Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute, the nerve center of neoconservatism. Like the DHS report itself, the left-wing commenters simply assume that “racist” = “right-wing,” and therefore lump together conservatives with racists who reject, root and branch, virtually everything conservatives believe in. (This is the historical fallacy used to designate the Nazis as right-wing, when – as Jonah Goldberg details exhaustively in his book Liberal Fascism – they were thoroughgoing economic statists, marketed themselves as a socialist worker’s movement, pushed a platform with numerous planks that could come straight from modern-day liberals and did in fact come from 20th century American progressives, were obsessed with health food and anything “natural” or “organic,” and campaigned persistently to undermine, subvert and replace the authority and legitimacy of Christianity, among other family resemblances to the Left.)

We can see the same effort to link racial hatred to strains of actual right-wingery in the DHS report:

Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.

One wonders if these guys would qualify on the first half of that definition.

The second point of interest is the left-bloggers’ embrace of profiling. Now, let’s back up a bit: law enforcement officers generally rely, in identifying possible suspects in the absence of a direct tip, on their own experience and the institutional knowledge of their departments in identifying who might be a criminal. Profiles are a part of the second half of that equation, one that’s been formalized in recent decades as a regular feature of law enforcement agencies. Profiling principally involves profiles of behavior indicative of various kinds of criminal activity – bank fraud, prostitution, serial killing, drug smuggling, etc. None of this is controversial. What is controversial is including things that aren’t prelude-to-crime behaviors in a profile, whether it be inherent characteristics (race, gender), or what are generally thought of as protected activities (religion, political affliation).

The conservative view on profiling has generally been to treat it as disfavored but not necessarily rule it out entirely, while liberals spent years making a cause celebre of racial profiling (Barack Obama made an anti-profiling crusade one of his priorities as a state legislator). Profiling, if done carefully and drawn narrowly from factual experience, can be a useful law enforcement tool. The problem with profiling people based on general characteristics, especially things like race and religion and political affiliation, is that it tends to feed into stereotypes, be grounded in overbroad generalizations rather than hard evidence, sweep in too many innocent people into a law enforcement net, and as a whole encourage dangerous and usually sloppy law enforcement.

The DHS report was all that, and any liberal worthy of the name would not be defending its sweeping generalizations. And still less would liberals be rushing to validate it based on individual shootings in a nation of 300 million people. Imagine if the DHS report had focused on African-Americans as especially likely to commit murder: how many shootings by lone African-Americans would be enough to justify profiling on the basis of race? More than one or two, I’d bet – certainly I wouldn’t tolerate profiling on such a basis.

Federal surveillance and vigilance against actual groups of potentially violent political extremists, whatever their political stripes, is of course reasonable. And conservatives, being believers in the virtue of experience as the basis of knowledge, should not turn up our noses at efforts to draw profiles of other possible groups based on experience with existing ones. But we can and should demand something more rigorous than sloppy generalizations in venturing onto the dangerous turf of profiling political opponents of the current Administration (the same Administration whose Attorney General has previously raised the temperature of otherwise peaceful political debate by threatening to criminally prosecute members of the outgoing Administration over policy differences).

But liberals who are cheering this sort of thing ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves, if they ever meant anything they said about racial profiling.