Early reports quote witnesses as describing the Oslo suspect who is in custody as “blond,” “Nordic-looking,” and “Norwegian.” Naturally, MSNBC is going up in a balloon over this, reporting that a “specialist in Islamic movements” is “caution[ing] that widespread assumptions that the attacks were connected to international terrorism could be wrong.” The expert, Magnus Ranstorp, concludes that the description of the suspect points “to an internal rather than an external extremist.”
Again, it is premature to draw conclusions at this stage. Still, having debated the subject of profiling for years, I am always amazed at how quickly the people who say we must not profile become committed profilers when it suits their purposes.
The point is that, correctly understood, profiling is a natural, sensible thing to do, and we all do it — not just MSNBC but everyone from intelligence analysts to the father eying the guy at the door who wants to go out with his daughter.
Nobody is convicted over fitting a profile — any more than some organization’s claim of responsibility necessarily means that organization actually carried out an attack. But the fact that claims of responsibility are notoriously suspect right after a terrorist attack does not mean investigators should ignore them. And in the same way, you can’t avoid considering the profile. It is simply a way for investigators to organize their suspicions in a rational way, to beam their attention on the most likely culprits first – recognizing that you still need to show by evidence, not by mere characteristics, that the suspect is guilty. Profiling avoids constitutional problems because the Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and it is unreasonable to regard every single person as a suspect just to avoid offending the tender sensibilities of this or that group.