Myodicy, Issue 18, May 2003

You Never Can Tell

by Theodore Plantinga

Philosophy is not a very useful enterprise: it bakes no bread. Therefore it feels the need to justify its existence in universities and colleges by appealing to the ideal of the "liberal arts" -- study a bit of this and that before you make a life-choice in terms of academic specialization and a career.

When I beat the drum for philosophy as a worthwhile subject of formal study, I do not rely on such reasoning. Nor am I impressed by the assumptions behind the "liberal arts" defense. Perhaps it is literally true that philosophy bakes no bread -- the same could be said of many other disciplines. But that does not mean they are not useful. And philosophy, with its systematic exploration of the nature and extent of human knowledge, is most useful and relevant to everyday life.

The facet of everyday life I most often appeal to in making this point is health and medicine: during my own days of dealing with cancer and exploring treatment options, I found that my training in philosophy came in very hand. But the same case can be made in relation to issues of security, which seem to preoccupy us nowadays.

One way that the human community keeps itself secure is by identifying evil-doers and making sure they lose the power and/or the opportunity to harm us. This is first and foremost the work of the police and the courts. Now, since we are a democratic society, we do not simply incarcerate anyone who looks as though he might be dangerous: we only deprive people of their liberty once it is proven to our public satisfaction that they have violated the law. Prisoners who are incarcerated together sometimes harm one another -- which is not a matter to take lightly -- but at least they are not a danger to the law-abiding folks who never set foot in a prison.

In some countries the death penalty is also used to guarantee the safety and security of the public. Many of the states that make up the USA have capital punishment on the books, and some, like Texas, use it quite often. (It should be remembered that the current US president was Governor of Texas before taking over in the White House.) Those who have been executed are no longer a danger to public safety.

At the moment there is quite some soul-searching underway in the USA over the question whether capital punishment should be continued. In my own country, Canada, the death penalty was abolished quite some time ago, and it shows no signs of making a comeback. I am among the many Canadians who regret its disappearance: I am still in favor of using it in certain cases of murder. And so I get involved in informal debates about the death penalty every now and then, for there are many Canadians, especially in academic circles, who maintain that it should never, ever be used.

As a philosopher, I find it interesting that outright skepticism plays quite a role in these debates. To the extent that skepticism paralyzes us in terms of our public responsibilities, we have a problem, and a philosophical response will be needed. But where would one start?

It might be helpful to note, at the very outset, that the great philosophers were not skeptics at heart but enemies of skepticism: think of Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world. And the battle against skepticism needs to continue into our time: public safety demands it. It must be possible for us to gather sufficient knowledge of social circumstances to be able to take rational and sound measures aimed at public safety and welfare. We would be in a bad way, indeed, if we were always up in the air, needing to shake our heads and mutter: "You never can tell ...."

The well-meaning opponents of the death penalty do not generally strike the pose of radical skeptics. Instead they tend to think in specific terms. Very often they have one or a few cases in mind when the death penalty is being debated. And so, at a certain point, when other arguments do not seem to be carrying much weight, they may voice a plea to the effect that so-and-so ought not to be executed because he is innocent.

As soon as I hear this gambit, I switch to the other side: I then emphatically affirm that so-and-so should not just have his death penalty commuted to life imprisonment but should be set free. If he has been wrongfully convicted, he should not spend one more day on death row -- or behind bars of any sort.

An argument that such-and-such a prisoner is innocent of the murder of which he has been convicted is by no means a rare occurrence. A while back the state of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the death penalty because it concluded that there had been quite a number of wrongful convictions. Recent DNA reviews of existing convictions have resulted in a number of convicted prisoners on death row being set free. And we should all applaud such belated justice.

I believe that in the long run, DNA testing is not on the side of the skeptics in this debate. It happens that we now have on the books quite a number of murder convictions that were not reached with the benefit of DNA testing. Now that such testing is available, it is only appropriate that it should be used to review old cases and convictions. And wherever it serves to overturn an old conviction, we should be thankful that the convicted person was not wrongfully executed, although we can do nothing about the fact that the same person was wrongfully incarcerated, usually for quite some time. Here in Canada, too, we have had mistaken murder convictions overturned in recent years: the cases of David Milgaard and Donald Marshall come to mind.

But the skeptics among us seem inclined toward a still stronger claim than the assertion that prisoner so-and-so is innocent and therefore should not be executed. In effect they seem to believe that you never can tell when it comes to these things. The investigation of criminal activity is such an inexact science that we can't really be sure who did what.

It's a sober and important claim that is being made here, and it should be taken with the utmost seriousness. And that's why we need philosophy in everyday life -- to help us understand what skepticism really amounts to, and why it is not viable as a way of life.

On the other hand, we also need to understand that the skeptical line of argument I have been discussing in this essay really amounts to an attack on punishment as such -- and not just on the death penalty. Think about it: if we have little or no reliable knowledge of human affairs, then we cannot be sure who it was that robbed such-and-such a bank. And in that case, no one should be in jail as a result of the robbery. In short, if human knowledge is such a frail and tenuous business as the incurable skeptics suppose, there is no place for punishment whatsoever.

Consider carefully what would happen if the radical skeptics had their way. If it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be punished, all the guilty men would wind up going free.

I'm pleased that skeptics of this radical order have not taken over in our society as yet. We do still lock up people for robbing banks and committing murder. But the skeptics seem to be quite influential in the airline security business, to which I will now turn in this exploration of the place of skepticism in everyday life. At the airport, nowadays, people also seem to believe: "You never can tell."

The security officials at the airport are charged with the responsibility of preventing highjackings and keeping bombs from being placed in the cargo hold. I do not propose to comment on the second responsibility: it seems to my amateur understanding that they are doing what seem appropriate and prudent in this regard. But like much of the public, I am not in agreement with the procedures used to keep hijackers off airlines. I think we can do better if we think matters through properly and employ different and better assumptions than the ones that are now operative. As we dig into this matter, we will discover that skepticism is once again our opponent.

The idea seems to be: you never can tell who might turn out to be the next hijacker. Therefore the thing to do is to treat everyone as a potential hijacker and take the time and trouble to disarm everyone. Just as Saddam Hussein was told over and over to give up his weapons of mass destruction, our airline passengers are forced to surrender their nail files and Swiss army knives.

My plea in this essay is that we must learn to distinguish two distinct aspects of the threat we face when people board an airplane: first, what potential weapons they may carry with them, and second, what likelihood there is that they might be intending to hijack the airplane or cause it to crash. I will start with the second.

What infuriates much of the flying public is the experience of seeing a bunch of people you know (let's suppose you are traveling in a large group) being worked over very extensively on the assumption that they represent hijack threats. It's your money in the form of taxes and new airport fees that pays for this process of giving people a hard time (that's how it look from the outside), and it's also your time that is being wasted. You know the people in question (perhaps a delegation of Lutheran pastors, of whom you are one), and you know that they are all law-abiding citizens who have no more inclination to hijack an airplane than does President George Bush.

As for the President, is he given such treatment when he boards an airplane? Presumably not -- everyone knows he is George Bush, the chief anti-terrorist. It would be a waste of time, and also a discourtesy, to impose such measures on the President.

Now, George Bush is a very recognizable fellow because he's always on television. Everyone has seen a great many pictures of him. The rest of us are not in his league when it comes to easy recognition. But perhaps this business of recognition is just the place to begin the battle against excessive and annoying security measures: we should do something to make ourselves more readily recognized at the airport.

If I have been on earth for more than half a century and have never been in trouble with the police, if I am known by friends and acquaintances to be completely non-violent, could I not get credit for not being a highjack risk when I enter a plane? Nowadays, when one volunteers with a civic agency to engage in good works without being paid, whether supplying seniors with "meals on wheels," or coaching a kids' sports team, or taking kids from the local church on a camping trip, one expects to undergo some police screening. This is reasonable. Could I not also be screened well in advance if I plan to travel somewhere on an airplane and thereby potentially endanger the safety of others just by being on the plane with them? And could my clean record and profile in terms of airplane security not be recorded on a travel identity card by means of which I could indicate to security guards at the airport that I am no more likely to highjack a plane than George Bush or Billy Graham? Could I not present my card at the airport, have the bar code read, and thereby give the security folks access to my sterling record in terms of living by the law and not harming my fellow human beings?

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself: there's a flaw in this proposal. Not really: it's just that the proposal as so far presented is incomplete. Reasonable people should be able to agree that Billy Graham does not need to be watched closely when he gets on an airplane. But there is still the question: is the man who looks just like the esteemed evangelist indeed the Billy Graham whom we all respect? Or could a dastardly highjacker or terrorist have disguised himself as Billy Graham in an effort to get onto an airplane without being properly screened?

My proposal, therefore, needs to be buttressed with some personal-identification technology based on finger-printing, or perhaps irises, or something of that sort. If it is true that keys and security code numbers and so forth are, in principle, obsolete because of these emerging technologies, why not combine them with some sort of travel identification card, perhaps issued by national governments, so that the folks at the airport can easily make sure, first, that I am indeed who I say I am (Theodore Plantinga), and secondly, that said Theodore Plantinga has a completely clean record and has nothing whatsoever in his past or his profile to indicate that he would pose any sort of risk to public safety on an airplane?

It is my somewhat reluctant conclusion that the elaborate search procedure that winds up taking away nail files and Swiss army knives is an inadequate substitute for what should really be going on. And because the procedures now in place are experienced by the public as so onerous, they do generate a feeling of security in those who perform such searches and those who undergo them. I suspect the searches are mainly beside the point. I would be quite content to have Billy Graham board an airplane with his Swiss army knife in his pocket. If a potential highjacker first has to rob the passengers on the plane to get the weaponry that is allegedly needed to highjack a plane, he will need his own Swiss army knife -- or something much more formidable -- to be able to begin the process of ransacking the possessions of the other passengers (which is also a time-consuming enterprise). In short, because Billy Graham is who he is, his Swiss army knife is not a danger on the plane. But the same logic applies to me. I'm no more a danger to public safety than Billy Graham is; the difference between us is simply that he is so much better known.

What my proposal amounts to is that people who board a plane should understand that they will not get on quickly and easily if they cannot produce a travel identification card which, in effect, lets the airport security people know instantly what their criminal history is (if any) and whether they fall into any class or category that has a history of involvement in hijacking and terrorism. It's not very different from what happens when you cross the US-Canada border nowadays: a quick computer check is often performed.

In mentioning the word "class," I have pointed to a dimension of my security proposal that many will perceive as a flaw: it seems to call for "discrimination" -- a dreaded word. Indeed, there are people who are determined to live without discrimination altogether. Now, I doubt that such a thing can be done, but I will grant that all who feel that the complete elimination of discrimination should be our ultimate ideal can be forgiven for reading no further. The rest of us -- people who join me in thinking that a certain amount of discrimination is inevitable and also defensible -- are encouraged to ponder whether carefully organized discrimination can help us out of what is becoming an impasse, a bottle-neck in our life of trade and travel.

In essence, discrimination is dividing people, processes and entities into categories, with the intention of not treating all of them alike. I pick up hitchhikers on occasion -- but not all who stand by the side of the road trying to flag down a car. Just as the security folks have to make decisions about whether to let this person or that onto an airplane, I have to make a very quick decision on whether to stop my car and let a potential hitchhiker in. When I am making up my mind, I am thinking very quickly. In effect, I am categorizing. Such-and-such a person will be admitted (assuming that the traffic situation makes it safe for me to stop), but a more menacing person (perhaps only superficially frightening) will not. I make no apology for thinking along such lines, for there is no general obligation to pick up hitchhikers.

"Racial profiling" at the airport is a form of discrimination, and it is often done in an approximate and inefficient way. To maintain that all brown-skinned men are potential terrorists is to take a rather crude approach. But to gather information on people of certain countries and affiliations and then to ascertain that members of such groups have -- in the past -- proven much more likely to engage in terrorist activities than the general run of the population is to practice both prudence and economy.

There is no need to query Rohinton Mistry repeatedly and strip-search him: if he has a high-tech identity card that will prove that he really is who he claims to be, his record as a law-abiding citizen should overcome any fear that a zealous security officer may have when he beholds Mistry's dark skin. One need not have Billy Graham's complexion to be identifiable as a peace-loving person.

The alternative to embracing some discrimination along the lines of my suggestion is to dwell forever in a "You never can tell" world. Now, the skepticism embodied in this phrase has a certain charm about it. We all like a touch of magic and mystery. For my part, I even acted in a drama with this very title some years ago at Redeemer University College: I played the role of Mr. Bohun in George Bernard Shaw's comedy "You Never Can Tell."

It's delightful to suppose that virtually anything might happen -- provided one is in the world of comedy, where happy endings can be scripted. However, it becomes positively debilitating and frightening in a world in which there are genuine evil-doers to be dealt with -- a small minority of our race, to be sure, but a menace all the same.

And so we need a combination of common sense and the very best technology now on the horizon to break the logjam at the airport and other locales where we have reason to suspect a terrorist attack might be in the works. My own ethnic affiliation is Frisian. If my fellow Frisians elevate our stock to a high-risk group in terms of public safety and security, I will have to pay the price to some degree in terms of being inconvenienced. I regret to say that this is the situation that Muslims from certain countries now find themselves in.

Are they then being treated unfairly? No one could blame them for thinking so. But in the end the measures I am promoting would enhance the welfare and security of us all -- peace-loving Muslims included.

When 300 people are waiting to board an airplane, the security people should be concentrating on the ones whose profiles show the greatest likelihood of possible terrorist intentions. Billy Graham can safely be let on the plane, perhaps to sit next to Rohinton Mistry, and if the Lutheran pastors can remember to bring their travel identity cards along, they need not be detained for extensive scrutiny either. Neither do the aged grandmothers pose much of a threat.

For a typical load of passengers, it will be a very small minority that needs thorough scrutiny. The energy and attention and security resources should be focused on them. That way we will all get to our destination sooner -- unless one of us has forgotten his identity card.

And suppose someone has done just that -- forgotten his identity card. Should we hold the plane for him? No, I think it would suffice to issue him a rain check. [END]

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