TROUBLEMAKERS: What pit bulls can teach us about profiling.

MALCOLM GLADWELL – The New Yorker

2006-02-06 Copyright The New Yorker
One afternoon last February, Guy Clairou picked up his two-and-a half-year-old son Jayden, from day care and walked him back t their house in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario They were almost home. Jayden was stragglin behind, and, as his fatherís back was turned, pit bull jumped over a back-yard fence an lunged at Jayden. ìThe dog had his head in it mouth and started to do this shake,î Clairouxí wife, JoAnn Hartley, said later. As she watche in horror, two more pit bulls jumped over th fence, joining in the assault. She and Clairou came running, and he punched the first of th dogs in the head, until it dropped Jayden, an then he threw the boy toward his mother Hartley fell on her son, protecting him with he body. ìJoAnn!î Clairoux cried out, as all thre dogs descended on his wife. ìCover your neck cover your neck.î A neighbor, sitting by he window, screamed for help. Her partner and friend, Mario Gauthier, ran outside. neighborhood boy grabbed his hockey stic and threw it to Gauthier. He began hitting on of the dogs over the head, until the stick broke. ìThey wouldnít stop,î Gauthier said. ìAs soo as youíd stop, theyíd attack again. Iíve neve seen a dog go so crazy. They were lik Tasmanian devils.î The police came. The dog were pulled away, and the Clairouxes and on of the rescuers were taken to the hospital. Fiv days later, the Ontario legislature banned th ownership of pit bulls. ìJust as we wouldnít le a great white shark in a swimming pool,î th provinceís attorney general, Michael Bryant had said, ìmaybe we shouldnít have thes animals on the civilized streets.
Pit bulls, descendants of the bulldogs used in the nineteenth century for bull baiting and dogfighting, have been bred for ìgameness,î and thus a lowered inhibition to aggression. Most dogs fight as a last resort, when staring and growling fail. A pit bull is willing to fight with little or no provocation. Pit bulls seem to have a high tolerance for pain, making it possible for them to fight to the point of exhaustion. Whereas guard dogs like German shepherds usually attempt to restrain those they perceive to be threats by biting and holding, pit bulls try to inflict the maximum amount of damage on an opponent. They bite, hold, shake, and tear. They donít growl or assume an aggressive facial expression as warning. They just attack. ìThey are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,î one scientific review of the breed states. ìFor example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.î In epidemiological studies of dog bites, the pit bull is overrepresented among dogs known to have seriously injured or killed human beings, and, as a result, pit bulls have been banned or restricted in several Western European countries, China, and numerous cities and municipalities across North America. Pit bulls are dangerous.
Of course, not all pit bulls are dangerous. Most donít bite anyone. Meanwhile, Dobermans and Great Danes and German shepherds and Rottweilers are frequent biters as well, and the dog that recently mauled a Frenchwoman so badly that she was given the worldís first face transplant was, of all things, a Labrador retriever. When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance than the rest of us (even though many young men are perfectly good drivers), and doctors use generalizations when they tell overweight middle-aged men to get their cholesterol checked (even though many overweight middle-aged men wonít experience heart trouble). Because we donít know which dog will bite someone or who will have a heart attack or which drivers will get in an accident, we can make predictions only by generalizing. As the legal scholar Frederick Schauer has observed, ìpainting with a broad brushî is ìan often inevitable and frequently desirable dimension of our decision-making lives.î
Another word for generalization, though, is ìstereotype,î and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives. The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous. A doctor could, with some statistical support, generalize about men of a certain age and weight. But what if generalizing from other traitsósuch as high blood pressure, family history, and smokingósaved more lives? Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fencesóor, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when weíve made the right generalization?
In July of last year, following the transi bombings in London, the New York Cit Police Department announced that it woul send officers into the subways to conduc random searches of passengersí bags. On th face of it, doing random searches in the hunt fo terroristsóas opposed to being guided b generalizationsóseems like a silly idea. As columnist in New York wrote at the time, ìNot just ëmostí but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look likeóeven as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.î
But wait: do we really know what mafiosi look like? In ìThe Godfather,î where most of us get our knowledge of the Mafia, the male members of the Corleone family were played by Marlon Brando, who was of Irish and French ancestry, James Caan, who is Jewish, and two Italian-Americans, Al Pacino and John Cazale. To go by ìThe Godfather,î mafiosi look like white men of European descent, which, as generalizations go, isnít terribly helpful. Figuring out what an Islamic terrorist looks like isnít any easier. Muslims are not like the Amish: they donít come dressed in identifiable costumes. And they donít look like basketball players; they donít come in predictable shapes and sizes. Islam is a religion that spans the globe.
ìWe have a policy against racial profiling,î Raymond Kelly, New York Cityís police commissioner, told me. ìI put it in here in March of the first year I was here. Itís the wrong thing to do, and itís also ineffective. If you look at the London bombings, you have three British citizens of Pakistani descent. You have Germaine Lindsay, who is Jamaican. You have the next crew, on July 21st, who are East African. You have a Chechen woman in Moscow in early 2004 who blows herself up in the subway station. So whom do you profile? Look at New York City. Forty per cent of New Yorkers are born outside the country. Look at the diversity here. Who am I supposed to profile?î
Kelly was pointing out what might be called profilingís ìcategory problem.î Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or traitóoverweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. ìYou think that terrorists arenít aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?î Kelly went on. ìLook at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.î
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