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One afternoon last February, Guy Clairoux picked up his two-and-a half-year-old son, Jayden, from day care and walked him back to their house in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario. They were almost home. Jayden was straggling behind, and, as his father’s back was turned, a pit bull jumped over a back-yard fence and lunged at Jayden. “The dog had his head in its mouth and started to do this shake,” Clairoux’s wife, JoAnn Hartley, said later. As she watched in horror, two more pit bulls jumped over the fence, joining in the assault. She and Clairoux came running, and he punched the first of the dogs in the head, until it dropped Jayden, and then he threw the boy toward his mother. Hartley fell on her son, protecting him with her body. “JoAnn!” Clairoux cried out, as all three dogs descended on his wife. “Cover your neck, cover your neck.” A neighbor, sitting by her window, screamed for help. Her partner and a friend, Mario Gauthier, ran outside. A neighborhood boy grabbed his hockey stick and threw it to Gauthier. He began hitting one of the dogs over the head, until the stick broke. “They wouldn’t stop,” Gauthier said. “As soon as you’d stop, they’d attack again. I’ve never seen a dog go so crazy. They were like Tasmanian devils.” The police came. The dogs were pulled away, and the Clairouxes and one of the rescuers were taken to the hospital. Five days later, the Ontario legislature banned the ownership of pit bulls. “Just as we wouldn’t let a great white shark in a swimming pool,” the province’s attorney general, Michael Bryant, had said, “maybe we shouldn’t have these 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 “gameness,” 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 don’t growl or assume an aggressive facial expression as warning. They just attack. “They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,” one scientific review of the breed states. “For 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.” 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 don’t 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 world’s 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 won’t experience heart trouble). Because we don’t 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, “painting with a broad brush” is “an often inevitable and frequently desirable dimension of our decision-making lives.”
Another word for generalization, though, is “stereotype,” 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 traits-such as high blood pressure, family history, and smoking-saved 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 fences-or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?
In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists-as opposed to being guided by generalizations-seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ 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 like-even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”
But wait: do we really know what mafiosi look like? In “The Godfather,” 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 “The Godfather,” mafiosi look like white men of European descent, which, as generalizations go, isn’t terribly helpful. Figuring out what an Islamic terrorist looks like isn’t any easier. Muslims are not like the Amish: they don’t come dressed in identifiable costumes. And they don’t look like basketball players; they don’t come in predictable shapes and sizes. Islam is a religion that spans the globe.
“We have a policy against racial profiling,” Raymond Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, told me. “I put it in here in March of the first year I was here. It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s 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?”
Kelly was pointing out what might be called profiling’s “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait-overweight 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. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look 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.”
Pit-bull bans involve a category problem, too, because pit bulls, as it happens, aren’t a single breed. The name refers to dogs belonging to a number of related breeds, such as the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American pit bull terrier-all of which share a square and muscular body, a short snout, and a sleek, short-haired coat. Thus the Ontario ban prohibits not only these three breeds but any “dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to theirs; the term of art is “pit bull-type” dogs. But what does that mean? Is a cross between an American pit bull terrier and a golden retriever a pit bull-type dog or a golden retriever-type dog? If thinking about muscular terriers as pit bulls is a generalization, then thinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull is a generalization about a generalization. “The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are,” Lora Brashears, a kennel manager in Pennsylvania, says. “And for most people it just means big, nasty, scary dog that bites.”
The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit-bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament-for some trait that these dogs share. But “pit bullness” turns out to be elusive as well. The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type-its gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain-are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)
A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. “There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”
Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? “The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner,” Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem.
One of the puzzling things about New York City is that, after the enormous and well-publicized reductions in crime in the mid-nineteen-nineties, the crime rate has continued to fall. In the past two years, for instance, murder in New York has declined by almost ten per cent, rape by twelve per cent, and burglary by more than eighteen per cent. Just in the last year, auto theft went down 11.8 per cent. On a list of two hundred and forty cities in the United States with a population of a hundred thousand or more, New York City now ranks two hundred-and-twenty-second in crime, down near the bottom with Fontana, California, and Port St. Lucie, Florida. In the nineteen-nineties, the crime decrease was attributed to big obvious changes in city life and government-the decline of the drug trade, the gentrification of Brooklyn, the successful implementation of “broken windows” policing. But all those big changes happened a decade ago. Why is crime still falling?
The explanation may have to do with a shift in police tactics. The N.Y.P.D. has a computerized map showing, in real time, precisely where serious crimes are being reported, and at any moment the map typically shows a few dozen constantly shifting high-crime hot spots, some as small as two or three blocks square. What the N.Y.P.D. has done, under Commissioner Kelly, is to use the map to establish “impact zones,” and to direct newly graduated officers-who used to be distributed proportionally to precincts across the city-to these zones, in some cases doubling the number of officers in the immediate neighborhood. “We took two-thirds of our graduating class and linked them with experienced officers, and focussed on those areas,” Kelly said. “Well, what has happened is that over time we have averaged about a thirty-five-per-cent crime reduction in impact zones.”
For years, experts have maintained that the incidence of violent crime is “inelastic” relative to police presence-that people commit serious crimes because of poverty and psychopathology and cultural dysfunction, along with spontaneous motives and opportunities. The presence of a few extra officers down the block, it was thought, wouldn’t make much difference. But the N.Y.P.D. experience suggests otherwise. More police means that some crimes are prevented, others are more easily solved, and still others are displaced-pushed out of the troubled neighborhood-which Kelly says is a good thing, because it disrupts the patterns and practices and social networks that serve as the basis for lawbreaking. In other words, the relation between New York City (a category) and criminality (a trait) is unstable, and this kind of instability is another way in which our generalizations can be derailed.
MALCOLM GLADWELL – The New Yorker
Copyright The New Yorker