Okay, so the Feds have received information that Al Qaeda may possibly be planning to target banks and other financial institutions in the Northeast. So, all the banks in the Northeast are supposed to raise their Threat Alert Level from Yellowish-Orange to Orange-Yellow or whatever. And the FBI Director offered a couple of practical tips to banks in the Northeast. One is to be on the lookout for “trucks parked alongside the building”. Well, that makes sense. If there’s a possible terrorist threat, it stands to reason that you might want to amble over and check up on that large rental truck that’s sitting in the No Parking Zone right outside for no particularly good reason. Sure, the terrorists may or may not use that mode of delivery; you may go over to ask the driver what he’s doing just in time to have a truck bomb go off in your face; the threat itself may or may not be real. But hey, “we think your institutions may be the subject of an Al Qaeda threat; be suspicious of trucks parked alongside the building” makes at least some sense.
But the other thing the FBI Director said was that banks should be suspicious of “individuals entering banks who ‘normally don’t come into banks’”.
What kind of “profile” is that? What kind of individual “doesn’t normally come into banks”? Is this threat directed at teeny-tiny small-town banks, the kind where all the customers are greeted by name as soon as they walk through the door? “Oh, hi, Mr. Smithers, I reckon you’ll be needing to make a withdrawal to pay for little Timmy’s appendectomy, eh?” We’re talking banks in New York City; I rather doubt these are the sorts of places where they know all their customers on sight. So, what general type of person would I not expect to see entering a bank? Businessmen go into banks; little old ladies depositing their Social Security checks go into banks; office workers; school teachers; bicycle messengers; men; women; Orthodox Jews; black people; white people; brown people; WASPs; Asians; gays; straights…We’re kind of looking at a cross-section of humanity here. I guess you don’t see too many unaccompanied toddlers in the lobby of Chemical Bank or Chase Manhattan. However, while I might not put it past the bastards ethically speaking, I think Toddler Bombs would probably present some practical difficulties. The little tykes would be apt to wander off and blow up God knows what. I guess homeless people don’t really hang around big swank bank lobbies much–somehow, though, I can’t really see Al Qaeda operatives dressing up like homeless people in order to infiltrate bank lobbies. Hey, they’re evil, but they’re not stupid.
“Be alert for people wearing bulky overcoats.” Now that would make sense, there’s a heat wave on, but a suicide bomber might need to conceal explosives. “Be suspicious of people who seem to be very nervous.” All right. “Watch out for people attempting to light their shoes in the lobby.” Sage advice, if a little obvious at this point. “If you see Osama bin Laden himself, we at the Bureau would strongly advise that you head for the exit.” I guess “Be on guard against individuals who enter banks waving AK-47s” is probably a given; I think regarding with suspicion people who are toting firearms has been S.O.P. for banks since at least the 19th Century. I mean, it’s a total crapshoot if any warnings along those lines would actually work, but at least they’re not totally devoid of logic.
“Be on guard against Middle Easterners.” Now, that one would be legally and ethically wrong. One could make a pragmatic case that it might be effective. (One could make counter-arguments even against the case for pragmatic effectiveness.) But it’s not like “people who don’t normally come into banks” is likely to be a very good code word for “Middle Eastern-looking types” in New York City. Maybe in Des Moines–“Be on the lookout for, ah, ‘people who don’t normally come into banks’–wink-wink, nudge-nudge.” “Yep, we don’t get too many of them Ay-rabs coming into banks around here.” But I’m thinking, in New York City, banks (and every other public place) probably routinely see just about every ethnic group the human race has produced, no doubt including all sorts of Middle Eastern businessmen, Arabs in kaffiyehs, etc. “People who don’t normally come into banks” doesn’t really meaningfully describe…well, anybody. You might just as well say “Be especially wary of people who are intending to blow the place up”, for all the practical good that particular warning does.