The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why Is It Permissible to Profile Packages But Not Passengers?

When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight (unless it’s Yemeni)

After three bombs were discovered in October among packages sent from Yemen to Chicago, FedEx, UPS, the US Postal Service, and the Royal Mail have all suspended service from Yemen.  Why isn’t anybody upset about this?

Most packages from Yemen to the United States are innocent.  They contain business documents, product samples, and gifts from friends and relatives.  But a very, very few Yemeni packages contain bombs, designed to blow up either midair in a cargo or passenger plane, or in a synagogue in Chicago, killing dozens and hundreds of people.  And the probability that any given package from Yemen turns out to be a bomb, while very, very low, is much, much higher than the probability that any given package from any other nation turns out to be a bomb.  That is precisely why FedEx, UPS, the USPS, and the Royal Mail all made the sensible decision to suspend air cargo service from Yemen.

Similarly, most passengers from Yemen or Pakistan are innocent.  They are businessmen, families on vacation, and students studying at universities in the United States.  They have no intention of carrying a bomb into the airplane or blowing it up midair.  But a very few Yemeni or Pakistani passengers are terrorists, who intend to do just that and kill hundreds of people.  And the probability that any given passenger from Yemen or Pakistan turns out to be a terrorist, while very, very low, is much, much higher than the probability that a passenger from any other nation turns out to be a terrorist.  But we cannot ban all air passengers from Yemen or Pakistan, because then liberals would cry profiling.

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I’m willing to bet that the probability that a given passenger from Yemen or Pakistan turns out to be a terrorist carrying a bomb is at least comparable, if not higher, than the probability that a given package from Yemen turns out to contain a bomb.  True, packages are not people, while passengers are.  But packages just don’t mail themselves.  There are people – mostly innocent people – behind every package sent from Yemen.  FedEx, UPS, the USPS, and the Royal Mail are telling all Yemeni residents that they may not send any package to the United States or the United Kingdom.  They are profiling all packages on the basis of their national origin because three out of hundreds of thousands of packages from Yemen turned out to be bombs.  Yet Delta Airlines or British Airways cannot tell all Yemeni citizens that they may not fly to the United States or the United Kingdom.  They are forbidden by law to profile all passengers on the basis of their national origin because a few out of hundreds of thousands of passengers from Yemen or Pakistan or Egypt or Saudi Arabia turned out to be terrorists in the past.  True, sending packages to the United States is not an inalienable human right of any citizen, but neither is flying to the United States.

Why is it permissible to profile packages (and the people who send them) on the basis of their national origin, but not air passengers?

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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