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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2001 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Crispin Sartwell

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Anthrax profilers are giving disgruntled males bad name


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- "FBI believes angry male loner sent anthrax letters." When I saw that headline, I assumed that there was an actual suspect, but what they have in custody is a profile, developed by forensic specialists.

Now the FBI meant this announcement to be reassuring, to show that they're all over the case. But it had exactly the opposite effect: it made it clear that they haven't been able to do a darn thing, though I guess we can now eliminate your mom and the Dalai Lama.

FBI "behaviorist" Jim Fitzgerald said he hoped members of the public might recognize these characteristics and give the bureau some leads. But to be honest, most of the people I know are disgruntled male loners. Come to that, I am myself an disgruntled male loner. Consider that a tip, Jim.

Possibly it is time to stop interning Arabs and start interning disgruntled male loners. We'll set up a network of camps where loners can be gruntled. We'll have a bowling league and a drum circle.

The disgruntled male loner has truly become an icon of American culture. Perhaps it is a mere coincidence, yet it seems that assassins and terrorists such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Lee Harvey Oswald, Tim McVeigh and so on were all disgruntled. On the other hand, our heroes -- such as the characters played by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne -- are also disgruntled male loners. We love our disgruntled male loners, yet we fear them too.

It's so darn hard being a disgruntled male loner these days. We receive mixed messages from the media, which disgruntles us further. We used to be admired, even venerated, but in the post-September 11 world, our heroes aren't cowboys, but friendly, well-adjusted bureaucrats.

Profiling is an interesting business. It consists in reading character from its effects, inferring who someone is by what they do. In fact, we're all profilers. To figure out who people are, all we have to go on is what they do.

A character in a play by Moliere, asked why opium makes people sleepy, says with a grandly scientific air that it has a sleep-inducing property. To say that someone is angry isn't much of an explanation for their violent behavior: rather their violent behavior is the explanation for our attribution to them of anger.

In the FBI profile, the "male" part comes from the fact that most people who send threatening mail are men. According to these experts, the perp probably also has "some scientific background." I'm hoping that the bureau didn't actually use my tax dollars to pay someone to tell them that the person who did this was angry

When we infer a personality with as little specificity as that attributed by the FBI to the bioterrorist, it seems evident that we are dealing with a ghost, a mere abstract postulate. When you're dealing with your best friend, the ghost in the machine seems more vivid, but it's no less an artifact of imagination.

Even our sense of ourselves is more or less an inference from our own behavior, and an inference from what other people infer about our behavior.

The FBI might believe that they are piecing together "who" the perpetrator is. But all they're doing is restating the information we all have in slightly different terms. We are all skilled at this kind of paraphrase, and any of us could have done as well with less information.

Let me see: the perp is liable to be over ten years old and to have at some time been in the state of New Jersey. He has a conflicted relationship with his Dad. He's not a tee-ball coach or a member of the Loyal Order of Moose. He isn't a very good ballroom dancer. He's resentful. He's unhappy. He's not much of a talker. He's not on anti-depressants, or if he is, he needs his medication adjusted. It's unlikely that he's a native of New Guinea; after all, most people aren't. He's not regarded as sensitive. Women have treated him badly. He probably does not like opera.

If you know this person, call your local FBI field office.



JWR contributor Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His website is www.crispinsartwell.com. Comment by clicking here.

Up

10/12/01: If you're not killing the killers, it's terrorism
08/01/01: Whatever identifies you, someone wants to steal it

© 2001, Crispin Sartwell