I have a theory, created in the aftermath of 9/11. It was a time when the US was attempting to get off its knees, to absorb the attack, to count the bodies, get money to the surviving families to needed it, sort of re-orient ourselves as a country that had been attacked by jihadists. At the time, we really didn’t know what that meant. But also there was an undercurrent of energy. We’d just seen a certain segment of our society pulled back: the Washington DC culture (FBI, CIA, NSA, and all supporting intelligence branches) suddenly became prominent. These became agencies we heard about on the nightly news instead of the mysterious entities mired in distracting cover of the White House and Congress. And in that sudden spotlight, every American suddenly felt they had a handle on the intelligence actions of our country. We were all intelligence experts because all this information was suddenly culled from the depths and spread out for everyone to see.
On the one hand, it was very condescending to believe we knew anything at all. Like watching news and reading the internet made us a deputized intelligence officer. On the other, it did allow a new accountability for those agencies.
When a rumor was floated that Attorney General Ashcroft wanted to know the library books citizens were checking out, I was struck with an idea.
No two people on the planet have read the same two books. Your library is as individual as your fingerprint. I wondered why FBI agents who were doing raids on houses of suspected jihadists didn’t take a full accounting of the books on the premises in order to build a kind of profile.
This idea, of course, has several flaws. The first is, what possible use could a profile be? The answer is probably none. But maybe there’s some kind of common thread in the books people read, or even in the percentages. Say, if a person’s book collection is 1/5 biographies and 1/2 history and 1/3 fiction, it’s possible that means something above and beyond the obvious and rather prosaic taste in books. I don’t know what it could “mean”. One possibility is that people can be broken down into “types” the same way FBI agents divide crimes into “unorganized” and “organized.”
Say you start with a “fiction-minded” person vs. a “history-minded person.” Would the fiction minded person be more prone to tell lies? Exaggerate? Would analysts take that into consideration if they were, say, searching for a serial killer?
I have no idea. The fact is, most of the profiling done by FBI agents is guesswork. Maybe intelligent guesswork, but still guesswork. But I can’t help but believe that if you’re doing guesswork, why not broaden the basis for your guesses to help inform the profile you’re creating.
Books seem to me a great place to start. They are, after all, reflections of things that are now in people’s heads. They’re a personal choice. They’re individualized; even if millions have read Eat, Pray, Love, how many have read Eat, Pray, Love and Mein Kampf? or Eat, Pray, Love and Mein Kampf and, Poems of John Donne?
There is something to be learned in that. I don’t know whether it has any relevance to intelligence agents, but I think it’s a worthy line of inquiry.