[ExI] Terrorist? Who can tell?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Sat Sep 13 04:04:19 UTC 2008

Stuart writes

> --- Damien Sullivan <phoenix at ugcs.caltech.edu> wrote:
>> And of course this "recent convicted bomber" thing is a red herring;
>> recently convicted bombers are probably in prison.  MI5 reportedly
>> looked for traits usefully distinguishing probable future bombers, and
>> failed to find them.
> Well I warrant that's because if you looked at all the bombers over the past
> fifty years, the only trait you would find in common is that they bomb.

Are you literally being serious? We're discovering amazing correlations
all the time. Consider the MRI studies alone, which can (often, I suppose)
tell when one is using the rational part of his mind and when one is not,
or whether one is sociopathic. What was once considered to be a 
psychiatric trait, homosexuality, is now found to have astonishing indicators,
such as the ratio of lengths of two fingers, and sizes and shapes of other

I was systematically lied to by my teachers, starting in high school, who
wanted us all to believe axiomatically that in every way possible all
races were psychologically and mentally identical, with only a very
few physical outer markers enabling any distinction at all. (Later, even
these were under attack to the point that the very existence of race
was questioned.) Then came the 1970s, and it was expected that we
would all take as a given that no gender or sexual differences existed
outside of the purely functional physical apparatus. Yet another lie.

Now, why do I say "lie", why choose the incendiary indictment? Because
the people standing behind those lies, who in very many cases were
defying their own senses and their own common sense, knew that they
had no real basis for their generalities, and were (or should have been)
aware that they were making these pronouncements only for the good
they thought it would so should everyone believe these mistruths.
Indeed, they might have been right about that---the world might indeed
be a better place if no one was aware of many differences that actually
exist;  but this has *nothing* to do with the search for the truth.

We need retain minds completely open to all conjectures, and hold as 
tentative the ones that we do accept and do find probable. It's overwhelmingly
probable in my opinion that real differences do exist between Republicans
and Democrats, between Presbyterians and Calvinists, and between bombers
and non-bombers. It could very well be the case that those raised as
Presbyterians are of a more fanatical or mercurial disposition, and are
perhaps more likely to engage in acts of violence to further their faith,
and that those raised as Calvinists may one day be found to be more
fatalistic about certain kinds of eventualities or in certain sitations.
We must not shut our minds to these possibilities. And the whole area
of "profiling" should not, of course, be dismissed as ultimately futile; we
don't know, and I'll even bet that for many purposes it even works now.

> And until they bomb they are not a bomber.

But they may still have characteristic traits, or at least a greater propensity
to have these traits than others, and were a means devised to identify
with sufficiently high probability those with these traits, lives could be
saved. Would anyone be prepared to claim categorically, for instance,
that the Bali bombers of a few years back could absolutely have no
distinguishing characteristics that were many standard deviations away
from normal?

> What one never hears about on the news are all the guys that decide at
> the last minute to *not* step on that bus with a bomb vest.

What is your conjecture here? How would you guess that they differ?
FWIW, my conjecture would be that they prove to be a bit more
cautious or timorous than those who actually go through with it, but
I would be the last person on Earth to suggest that that exhausts the

> And by cracking down on them, all you do is make them regret *not*
> getting on that bus.

This seems implausible to me. For some, yes: it could be that an interrogation
based upon certain spotted characteristics would galvanize them to the point
that they actually would go ahead next time, but there might be even more
who'd acquire a distaste for the whole business as a result, and be deterred
from even trying.
>> The fact that modern bombers may all have some connection to Islam is
>> not that useful a distinguishing feature, not when you're talking of a
>> few dozen bombers out of millions of Muslims.

First, as we have all agreed in this thread so far as I know, it's
exceedingly unlikely that *all* modern bombers have some 
connection to Islam. But you have brought up the practical
point: namely, even when identifying characteristics are uncovered,
it doesn't follow that there'll necessarily be any useful methodology
immediately applicable in the field.

> Yes, when you try to create a connection where there is none,
> it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Making someone pay for
> something they *might* do is liable to be all the economic
> incentive they need to actually do it. 

Sounds to me as though you're definitely getting carried away.
Could you give some examples? To illustrate, in my experience,
those accused of cheating, for example, are not thus made more
likely to cheat.

(Incidentally, what I have found that probably *will* ring a bell is
that those who are very quick to accuse others of cheating turn
out in many cases to be precisely those who themselves cheat,
which isn't too surprising when you stop to think about it. As
a result, when I run chess tournaments and someone is quick to
accuse others of cheating, I do my bit of "profiling", and keep
a careful watch on that person---and, I'll have to admit, retain
that prejudice (and rightly so, I maintain) when I weigh evidence
for and against later charges that this person himself has cheated.
But I do *not* believe that my extra observations in any way
will *cause* someone to begin cheating.)

Would you suggest that random searches for drugs among commuters
or people crossing the border are likely to turn non-drug user into
drug users? People falsely apprehended as bank robbers develop
a propensity to rob banks? As in other cases when someone makes
what is to me a startling claim or conjecture, I do want to know the
limits to it they have in mind.


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