Politics & Policy

Think Computers, Not Guns — Likely Terrorists Can Be Profiled and Stopped

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
Our national-security apparatus could learn from Target department stores.

Another violent tragedy has precipitated another tiresome conversation about the Second Amendment. We know that nothing valuable will come of it. Even liberals know this, which is why they get peevish and scold people for praying.

Here’s a suggestion. Can we take a break from the Second Amendment and start talking about Amendments Four through Eight? Those will probably be far more relevant to 21st-century crime control.

Like so many pet liberal issues, gun control continues to collect dust for good reason. It was never a great product, and its sell-by date is long past. This understandably frustrates liberals, who desperately want to do something about our recurring problem with mass murder. Even though public shootings claim relatively few lives in comparison with cancer or suicide, wanton violence still does terrible harm. It tears at the fabric of society. Sadly, such incidents may grow more common in coming years, as radical Islam picks up steam and social structures continue to erode. We’d like to look at Orlando and say, “Never Again,” but does anyone believe it? No. This will happen again.

How should we respond? In broad form, three strategies emerge. First, we could try to control weaponry so that mass killers lack the means to do serious harm. Clearly this is the preferred liberal solution, discussed ad nauseam every time a tragedy occurs.

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Second, we could work on increasing the number and availability of emergency responders, hoping to stop homicidal maniacs before the damage is egregious. “Emergency responders” might mean more police, or more private security personnel, or perhaps just more civilians who are armed and trained in the proper use of firearms. Of course we could have some combination of those three.

Third, we might step up our efforts to figure out who the bad guys are before they start killing. That means more and better surveillance and intelligence work.

We might step up our efforts to figure out who the bad guys are before they start killing.

These strategies are not mutually exclusive, and the most successful approach will probably be multifaceted. It’s interesting, though, that liberals focus overwhelmingly on the first approach, when that is the least promising. In a high-speed, high-travel, information-oriented economy, gun control is not the answer. Intelligence is the name of the game. We have to find the dangerous people before they go on killing sprees.

This already happens, of course. Intelligence-gathering is hardly a new idea. Nevertheless, we can tell from the never-ending gun-control argument that the public hasn’t adjusted to the realities of 21st-century crime control. Asking how the shooter got his gun is only slightly more interesting than asking how a kidnapper managed to acquire a set of car keys. A much better question is: Why didn’t someone get him before 50 people were murdered? Can a man contemplating such an atrocity really not be leaving clues as to his intentions and state of mind?

#share#These are uncomfortable questions. When it comes to law enforcement, most of us would rather have The Untouchables than Minority Report. Modern police procedurals have updated the cops-and-robbers model with some technological toys, but these are mainly used to spice up traditional investigative methods. On CSI or Hawaii Five-O, we see computers analyzing blood-spatter patterns or pulling usable images from a reflection captured by a cell-phone camera. That’s feel-good policing. Snoopier investigative methods have for years been primarily the stuff of dystopian Big Brother flicks, or of dark TV dramas like The Blacklist, in which the leading man is himself a career criminal. It’s good entertainment, sometimes, but not the kind you want replicated in your local police department.

EDITORIAL: It’s Time for a Long-Term Strategy to Utterly Crush Islamic Terrorism 

In reality, there’s a of lot technological snooping going on already, conveniently hidden for our comfort. We argue about the ethics of profiling in very select contexts (stop-and-frisk, airport security), but the reality is that we’re all being profiled constantly. Target, for instance, uses analytics to examine people’s purchasing patterns and guess which coupons they might want. Then they add some coupons they don’t think you’ll want, just so you don’t feel cyber-stalked. Target’s algorithm can, among other things, diagnose a female shopper’s pregnancy and predict her likely due date with startling accuracy. (First comes love, then comes the unscented hand lotion, then comes the Target baby carriage, available now for $149.99.) That’s just from analyzing one person’s purchases at one particular store.

If a department-store chain can do that, can the information-rich government really not find terrorists and homicidal maniacs before they snap? Surely it can. Quite often, it already does. (We tend not to hear much about the intended bloodbaths that get foiled.) These are the tactics that are suited to an information age. Killers can find weapons, but we can find the killers. That’s 21st-century crime control.

Liberals love to marginalize the potential of intelligence-gathering, because gun control feels good to them in a way that profiling decidedly doesn’t.

Both liberals and conservatives have reasons to be wary about this. Conservatives naturally aren’t willing just to trust Big Brother with so much sensitive information. Is there any way to protect our privacy? How can we achieve transparency, protecting against politically motivated abuses of power? These are questions we should be discussing vigorously.

Liberals, for their part, love to marginalize the potential of intelligence-gathering, because gun control feels good to them in a way that profiling decidedly doesn’t. Which is more likely to please a liberal: the dream of universal disarmament, or the nightmare of judging people based on circumstantial evidence? The demographic groups that liberals champion stand to benefit disproportionately from improved public safety but are also more likely to end up on criminal watch lists. Unsurprisingly, this is one conversation liberals are not excited to start.

In fact, some are anxious to shut it down. In an effort to protect Muslim communities from increased surveillance, advocates from the Brennan Center implausibly argue that there’s really “no discernable pattern or profile” that would enable us to identify probable terrorists. That position seems rather preposterous, considering that even a casual observer can see that nearly all jihadists are young, Muslim, and have non-trivial connections to Islamic countries or devout Muslim communities. That’s already a small minority of our total population. Could a wider sampling of information narrow the field further? Let’s ask Target.

#related#Brennan Center advocates like to suggest that “normal policing” is the best protection against terrorism. Why profile people when we can just police the normal way? It’s really a comical suggestion, given the extent to which analytics have already transformed “normal” policing. Already, the best police departments in the country (such as the NYPD) have learned to respond flexibly to accumulating data and statistical trends. That means that you, your street, your workplace, and your neighborhood are being profiled routinely. It may seem creepy in the context of a movie, but we’re happy when our neighborhoods are safe, at reasonable cost, and with diminished risk to law enforcement. The Untouchables is a good movie, but a regrettable number of the characters in it die.

Still, surveillance and profiling do raise legitimate concerns, which is why we should discuss them. How invasive should law enforcement be in investigating people who statistically pose a threat but, to our knowledge, haven’t actually broken any laws? Is it unjust to factor risk assessments into criminal-sentencing procedures, potentially leading to wildly disparate punishments for similar crimes? Where do undercover counterterrorism efforts cross the line between investigation and entrapment? These are morally perilous questions, which inevitably arise when intelligence and data analysis become central to our justice system.

The reality, though, is that these tactics are essential if we hope to stop global terror networks. That’s why we should shut up about guns and start talking about computers. If the wonks can’t save us from wanton violence, nobody can.

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