Sam Harris Continues the Discussion on Muslim Profiling May 7, 2012

Sam Harris Continues the Discussion on Muslim Profiling

I know a lot of you are unhappy with him right now, but I’ll tell you what I like about Sam Harris. He doesn’t shy away from talking about controversial topics and he doesn’t back down from his critics. Instead, he’s continuing an interesting discussion.

In his latest piece, he’s categorizing most of the assumptions held by his critics and responding to two of the more popular ones.

He begins with a thought experiment:

Imagine that you work for the TSA and are executing a hand search of a traveler’s bag. He is a young man in his twenties and seems nervous. You notice that he is carrying a hardcover copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You pick up the book and ask him if he likes it. He now appears even more nervous than before. You notice something odd about the book — the dust jacket doesn’t seem to fit. Your remove it and find a different book underneath. How do you feel about this traveler’s demeanor, and the likelihood of his being a terrorist, if the book is:

A. The Qur’an (in Arabic)
B. The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide
C. Overcoming Impotence: A Leading Urologist Tells You Everything You Need to Know
D. Dianetics

If you care more about A than B, C, or D, as I think you should, you are guilty of religious profiling (and calling it “behavioral profiling” doesn’t change this fact).

Is he wrong? I’m honestly less interested in that answer than I him watching him go back and forth with his critics. This is a discussion he feels is worth having and the fact that so many commenters have a hard time responding to him without letting their emotions (and gut reactions) get in the way shows that he has touched a nerve. If he’s proven wrong, I want to see him acknowledge that. If he’s right, I want to watch him try and defend his views (hopefully, without being too stubborn about it). This is something we — as atheists — are supposed to do well. Debate, discuss, use reason and evidence, listen to the experts, admit if/when we’re wrong, and then keep asking more questions. It’s fascinating to watch.

Harris says that security expert Bruce Schneier (who has argued against profiling) will be responding to Harris’ arguments tomorrow. Can’t wait to read what he writes.

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  • Happycynic

    The way I see it, you put more effort into inspecting the groups that are shown more likely to commit acts of terrorism. That means having the people who catch terrorists all putting their numbers together and figuring what the “average terrorist” looks like. Are they male or female? Black, white, middle-eastern, asian? What age?  What income level? Do they fly economy or business class?

    Then you have a majority of your screening be based strictly on those demographics. Say, 70 or 80 percent. The rest should be done as truly random screening, because if terrorists catch on to which demographics you target, they’ll start sending people who don’t match that.

    Of course, this might result in racial profiling if, say, 80% of convicted terrorists attempting to use planes are young bearded middle-eastern Muslim men. But then don’t blame the TSA, blame the young bearded middle-eastern Muslim men for creating a true stereotype.

  • The problem with his thought experiment is that it depends on terrorists not carefully planning what they’ll take, how they’ll dress, how they’ll act, and how they’ll look.

    Sam keeps putting up (lame IMO) defenses to the ethics of his plan, but not to the practicality and effectiveness.

  • “… the fact that so many commenters have a hard time responding to him
    without letting their emotions (and gut reactions) get in the way shows
    that he has touched a nerve.”

    But the question requires an emotional response. Sam Harris is just not getting the particular emotional response that he has when he ponders this question. The likelihood that any of those options are in fact a terrorist are slim to none.

  • Zillions of ordinary people own a Koran (including in Arabic, as unlike most sects of Christianity, Islam puts a lot of effort into teaching the source language) and it’s quite natural to assume that many of them would be afraid to be “caught” taking their Koran on a plane precisely because of the profiling, so obscuring it would not be very much proof of wrongdoing at all.

  • Profile young bearded men and they will send older shaved men. Profile older shaved men and they will send women. You can’t really win the game this way.

  • Charon

    Wow, that’s a weird thought experiment. I don’t see what relevance it
    has other than Harris saying, “See, you religiously profile too!” Except I wouldn’t, and I’m not sure why I should, despite his “I think you should” comment. I would feel sad that someone thought they had to hide their holy book from the TSA. Maybe they were afraid of… you know, religious profiling.

    And behavioral profiling is different. If we’re suspicious because the guy has a Quran, that’s religious profiling. If we’re suspicious because he’s acting nervous and hiding things, that’s behavioral profiling. See, different.

  • “Is he wrong?”

    Yes, he’s wrong. And anyone that hasn’t understood that, and why, by now is either not paying attention, or not discussing this in good faith.  The fact that Sam Harris seems to be ignoring all the calm, reasoned, well referenced responses explaining why he’s wrong, and instead focusses entirely on folks simply (but not, it would appear, inaccurately) calling him a racist, makes it look like it’s the latter.
    The inevitable smackdown from Bruce Schneier should be entertaining though.

  • Ian Reide

    Nahh, search and detain all religious people. Christian terrorists have also done a great deal of damage. No need to limit to just Muslims. Atheists and agnostics can stroll through security checkpoints unimpeded. 

  • The Captain

    He conveniently left the bible off that list.

  • There are also atheist terrorists. Like the poor nutcase who took people hostage at the Discovery Channel offices.

  • Simon

     Instead, he’s continuing an interesting discussion.

    aka ‘digging his heels in’. Just like on the torture question, he refuses to admit that he is wrong.

  • And the guy who shot Gabby Giffords.

  • Atheist From Hell

    So you like Sam Harris because he doesn’t shy away from controversial topics and does not back down from him critics.

    You must also Luke Glenn Beck, you jackass.

  • Denis Robert

    Stop defending this bigot, Hemant. He’s digging the hole ever deeper, and the passage in his response is a perfect illustration of his desperation to defend his bigotry with strawmen; his example is in fact a perfect reason NOT to do the kind of profiling he’s describing. Anyone who looks nervous and hides his motives should be stopped and searched. That’s not profiling, that’s responding to a very specific behaviour. It’s the very kind of thing the TSA is NOT  doing enough of.

    I’m personally far more worried about bombings by Christian terrorists. Let’s not forget that pre-9/11, the most deadly terrorist attack on US soil was perpetrated by Christian Nationalists. And anyone who believes that the threat from this kind of attack is less likely today than it was in the mid-90s is utterly delusional.

  • dangeroustalk

    Nah, it seems most of my fellow atheists would rather just call him a racist and be done with the discussion. I disagree with Harris on profiling, but I am more incensed by how my fellow non-believers just want to write him off as a racist. 

  • Fuzz

    There have been several very rational counter-arguments to Sam’s piece, many by regular Facebook fans of Sam, as well as by more famous atheists like PZ Myers. While there have been knee-jerk condemnations without rationale, there has also been knee-jerk support without rationale, and Sam has not been above questioning the intelligence of those who disagree with him on this issue. Unfortunately, Sam’s latest piece doesn’t address many/any of the issues raised by his detractors (on this issue), as pointed out by PZ Myers (to note one example). As much as I admire Sam and his work, I see him digging in his heels about this and not really addressing the questions and counter arguments with reason, evidence, and logic.

  • Lucy

    What if he is acting nervous and hiding things, and the thing he happens to be hiding is a Quran? What type of profiling is it then?

  • It’s amazing to see people on either side of any argument turn into unreasoned and unreasonable people when confronted with ideas that don’t already conform to their beliefs whether it’s religious folks or atheist liberal folks. You come to the table with preconceived ideas and argue emotionally from that point. You believe in science when it agrees with you, you question it when the science doesn’t agree with you. You know for a fact that some factions of the Islamic religion have declared war on the west but any heightened scrutiny of muslims you’ll consider to be abhorrent not because it’s not reasonable but because you think it’s racist and you’d rather get blown up than look more carefully at the larger group from which the smaller group of muslims who want to do violence comes from.  And in a fit of liberal orthodoxy you will act the exact same way god fearing folks feel and be willing to burn the witch. Like Juan Williams confessing to being apprehensive about muslims on planes some of you will happily light the bonfire to burn Juan Williams or Sam Harris because their thoughts don’t conform.  Amazing every time I see it.

  • Kalafarski

    C’mon, Harris. Anyone can see how much of a false analogy that is–only one of those books motivates behavior or political opinion. How about we replace the other three with (b) the Bible, (c) the Communist Manifesto inserted into the pages, and (d) a book/pamphlet supporting eco-terrorism. Or we could swap any of those three with the Quar’an, and they would be the most suspicious of the four books Harris proposes. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that the individual is Christian, Muslim, ecologically-friendly, or Communist–if any of these individuals simply carried their literature, there would be little reason for additional suspicion. I say “little” because anyone who is more strongly devoted to a particular cause would be more likely to draw suspicion than someone who is not.

  • Lucy

    I agree. I’m actually surprised by some of the nastiness that has come from this. No progress is made in discussions like this when one or both sides descends into verbal poo-slinging (such as the comment below).

  •  Exactly.

  • Lucy

    What an unnecessary comment. And a false equivalence. Would you say Christopher Hitchens and Glenn Beck are the same? Because he also didn’t shy away from controversial topics and didn’t back down from his critics.

  • Gerrysch

    I imagine that I’d allow him through the line, no further questions asked.  If he was a true fanatic Muslim, he wouldn’t take a Qu’ran along with him to blow up an airplane.  That would destroy the Qu’ran.  If he’s not a true fanatic Muslim he shows the good sense not to alarm his fellow passengers by allowing them to see him with his holy book, a degree of concern inconsistent with terrorist plotting.  Look, I”m an atheist, and I have at least three Qu’rans in my house (and a couple dozen Bibles in different languages).  I don’t suspect myself of wanting to blow up an airplane.  There are a whole lot of Muslims in the world, and only a tiny handful are terrorists.  Profiling people because of their religion is irrational as religion itself.  

    Now if he’s got a copy of Dianetics, I’d watch out for him.  🙂

  • Tom

    I don’t have anything to add here except that I support Sam on this issue, and I hope to give any others reading who may think the same a sign that there are others.

  • Miko

    Harris’ argument here can easily be refuted mathematically using elementary probability theory, but it is also so asinine that doing so isn’t really necessary.  A more interesting thing to take from this example is that Harris wants to create a world in which Muslims would be afraid to take a copy of their holy book on an airplane.  That has nothing to do with anti-terrorism and everything to do with anti-Muslim bigotry.

  • Charon

     You’re already searching him when you find the hidden Quran. If that’s all he’s hiding, then there’s no problem – I hope we can all agree on that. The suspicious behavior prompted the search, and searches are generally completed whether or not they uncover a book halfway through.

  • Tom

    But you must understand that by profiling young bearded men it makes it harder on “them.”  It’s not victory-in-a-can, it’s just a step towards making the tactics harder for success.  Women are just less likely to go kill themselves, on all demographics (men have higher rates of successful suicide attempts across the board).  It makes it harder on the truly typical young male jihadi  to find a substitute for themselves (like many of their women really want to sacrifice their lives because their men tell them too.  Only a few (relative to men) would willingly do so.

    This is tactics, you do what will most likely guarantee you success, and often make the best of bad decisions.

    I believe at times judging others on some details, without knowing who they really are, is required when safety is threatened.  I believe these judgements should be painstakingly monitored and scrutinized, and at as many times as possible be made by more than one or two individuals so as to challenge confirmation bias.

  • brianmacker

    Why no link to Sam Harris’s full argument:

  • brianmacker

    He’s already refuted several claims quite definatively don’t be so sure Bruce will produce the smackdown you are hoping for.   Of course, you are not aware of this because you have not read the original article.   For example, it is absolutely false that the Israelis do not use profiling.   Not only do they do religious profiling they do racial profiling.

  • brianmacker

    Yet they keep sending Muslims not 8 year old Jews.   Why’s that if you think they have these unlimited options.    We’ve already got the smuggled bomb issue covered with the questions about whether you packed your own bags and were they always in your sight, etc.   I don’t know how you get a 8 year old jewish kid to smuggle a box cutter on the plane and overpower the crew.

  • But you must understand that by profiling young bearded men it makes it harder on “them.”

    No, because now you’ve given them something specific to do to reduce the chance of inspection.

  • brianmacker

    Do the math.  I expect you to make a mistake in your assumptions (most likely with regards to resources).

  • brianmacker

    Nonsense.   The Amish and Jains are strongly devoted to a cause and don’t go around blowing up planes.   Mainly because their “cause” doesn’t extoll the virtues of martyrdom, and religious violence.

  • Mikewest1

    You people are so naive re the Islamofascists..quite amusing.

  • That article is scant on details, but weighed against a number of other sources that describe Israeli profiling, I’m not ready to call it ‘racial profiling’.  I think what probably happened is that 
    Tuval was using an English phrase loosely and not thinking of the distinction.

  • brianmacker

    You don’t understand what profiling is if you think it is used as “proof of wrongdoing”.      When searching to prevent med fly’s entering the country it would be fairly stupid to inspect laptops.    A better candidate for inspection would be fruit.    The fact that you have fruit is not “proof of infestation”.    The purpose is to reduce the resources required for the searching, and unneccesary delays for those who are not importing fruit.     It is an economic issue.

    It makes sense to pay more attention to people carrying a book that advocates the murder of non-believers as a means to get into heaven, even if by suicide.  Of course the majority are not going to act on the things advocated in the Qur’an but that’s the price you pay.   Just like if you carry around the anarchists cookbook.    Again, most people who have or who have read that book haven’t blown anyone up.

  • Sorry, he did come up with a defense:

    6. It would also allow terrorists to find another path through security—such as recruiting 80-year-old women from Okinawa to do their suicidal dirty work 

    Bruce Schneier appears to be very fond of #6, and I trust we will hear more from him about how terrorists can successfully game any system that profiles. But I don’t buy this argument, at least not yet, for reasons that we will probably discuss. 

    No, I don’t think Bruce will change his mind.  I’m sure he’s read Bruce, and I don’t think there’s much Bruce can add to what he’s already said on profiling.

  • brianmacker

    That is profiling.    Profiling is using ANY characteristic to winnow down the number of people you have to more throughly search.    It’s quite clear that five year old jewish kids in wheelchairs don’t fit the profile of Islamic extremists.   

  • Lucy

    To play devil’s advocate, what if after a brief, incomprehensive search you can’t find anything else on him that may arouse suspicion, aside from his behaviour? People have been questioned/searched further on behaviour alone. Do we run the risk of letting suspicious people go for fear of being accused of religious profiling just because they are carrying a Quran, when in actual fact they could be a danger? The Quran shouldn’t necessarily influence them more in the direction of a further search, but it also shouldn’t influence them in the other direction either.

  • brianmacker

    What exactly did you find wrong about his torture position?    His argument was that torture should be illegal and that if someone in power decides to use it they should be asked to pay the legal penalty, yet under certain circumstances it may not make sense to hold them morally in contempt.   That is if they openly admit to having tortured the person for the information and are willing to take the personal consequences. 

    Now I know what I found objectionable to his arguments, but it’s not so obvious that he is wrong.     Seems like many of the Democrats like Pelosi and Clinton didn’t find it wrong enough to take steps to avoid it when they could, and took the low road of not admitting to what they had facilitated (all the while pretending they were against torture).   Their deeds, not words, show that it’s easy to say and not do.

    Seems weird to condemn Harris in this regard when Islam’s founder, Mohammad,  not only approved of torture but practiced it for the purpose of finding out where his victims hid their savings.   That is to facilitate religiously motivated theft, rape, and the like, not anything like saving the innocent.

  • Heck if we actually know someone is a Muslim by some other means, then we should probably suspect them for NOT carrying a Quran.

    If there’s any merit to Sam’s argument, then it must focus on things one cannot change.  Beard, clothing, and what you carry are all things you can change and terrorists surely will to reduce scrutiny.

    The only bit that remains is whether or not an 80-year-old-woman from Okinawa can be a terrorist (or terrorist mule).

    I see a great movie plot here where terrorists kidnap an 80-year-old-from-Okinawa’s great-grand daughter forcing the 80-year-old-from-Okinawa to carry a bomb onto a plane.  

  • brianmacker

    I think you have blinders on.    The article explicitly states that Jews (which is a racial as well as a religious category in case you were unaware) get special treatment.   What don’t you understand about “If you have a Hebrew name and ‘look Jewish,’ the security screening will be swift and painless. “

  • brianmacker

    Oh, and there are additional economic costs on the terrorists in finding willing white jewish 8 year old kids strong enough and willing enough to use box cutters to get into paradise.     Using profiling reduces the available pool of suitable suicide bombers too.   

  • brianmacker

    It seems that liberals tend to be economic ignoramuses.  What are the costs to the terrorists of having to  find 80 year old Okinawan Muslims willing to suicide bomb?    Instead they place the costs of not being able to carry a nail clipper, water bottle, etc. on a plane over the entire US population.

    They have the same blindness when it comes to other economic issues like global warming.    We know for sure that the carrying capacity of the earth is way less that a billion humans without fossil fuels, so their abandonment is guaranteed to cause the deaths of around 5-6 billion.   Yet they are focused on the still unproven idea that CO2 is going to produce much more extreme weather deaths which isn’t even a blip on demographics.  I say unproven because it is our increased consumption of fossil fuels that has made possible our ability to reduce weather related deaths (central heating, computer forcasts, transportaion, communications, etc.).    Plus the number of hurricanes and severity is actually been down despite dire forecasts.

    They don’t know how to balance costs.    It seems to be more about religion to them.

  • brianmacker

    Sam called for religious profiling, and guys like PZ Myers pull out the race card and call it racial profiling.   You find such straw man arguments “rational”.  

    Fact is that certain ethnicities are near monocultures of Islam precisely because they have persecuted and/or religiously cleansed their cultures to that point.    If you are able to ethnically distinguish a Saudi Arabian native there is  a very high probablility that he/she will be a Muslim.     So yes, in certain cases you can tell what a Muslim “looks like”.

    Yes, there are exceptions, and one would need to use other clues in those cases, on a case by case basis.   The question then is it more costly.    Is it more costly to train people to detect  and than the savings one gets from the reduced number of searches required.      There isn’t neccesarily an obvious answer, and it all depends on the proportion of travelers, etc.   What it isn’t is racism.

  • Yes, I read that, and then I read:

    In my case, they ask how old I was when my family immigrated to Israel and where I served in the Israel Defense Forces, and after that it’s easy sailing.


    A friend with a similarly foreign name told me that with her, they just hear the Hebrew names of her children and she’s okay.

    I’m not sure if I’m blinded, or just weighing the evidence.Based on your article alone, I’d say they do a combination.  Sounds like they give people who appear to be Jewish at first glance a lighter profile, but they still ask questions.  It’s not hard to find a Jewish looking Muslim.  Or to get a fake passport with a Jewish name.  That’s not exactly the story I’ve gotten from other sources, butit’s kinda moot anyway.We know Israel is a raisin to our field of rutabagas.  The question here is “Did Ewan pay any attention to Sam’s third article”, not “Would Israel’s airline screening system effectively scale to the US”.Sorry if I’m the one responsible for changing the subject by questioning your source.  In the end I don’t really care what Israel does unless it will work for us.

  • brianmacker

    Why don’t you move to a country where they control controversial topics, like North Korea.   Oops, you probably don’t have the right skin complextion for that Marxist paradise.   Not ironic at all about how here in the West Marxist studies invented political correctness and in all the totalitarian regimes inspired by Marx they really don’t allow much controversy.     Happily Harris doesn’t respect PC boundaries.

  • brianmacker

    Is that an act of organized terrorism?  Meaning the lone nut case, as opposed to some organized belief system that has many adherants and teaches things that only a few have the balls to act on.   

  • brianmacker

    That guy was protesting overpopulation.  Wouldn’t you profile Erlich worshipers instead?     That is unless he was just a lone nut job, in which case you’d expect profiling not to be of much value.

  • brianmacker

    All religious people?   It might make sense to profile anti-abortionists around health clinics, but certainly not on airplanes.    Also, I’m not sure what basis you have for profiling Jains, Hutterites, and the Amish.   Their particular religions do not advocate violence, and there is no history of them resorting to terrorist acts.

  • brianmacker

    What don’t you understand about the fact that doing something specific is harder?  

  • brianmacker

    ” If he was a true fanatic Muslim, he wouldn’t take a Qu’ran along with him to blow up an airplane.”

    True muslim fanatics have been using Koran’s to scribble notes they pass to each other in prison (and then being upset when the same Qur’ans are destroyed by burning them – a perfectly acceptable method for a Muslim to dispose of a Qur’an []).    There’s zero problem with taking a Qur’an with you on a suicide mission.

    You see Islam is all about the double standard.   Muslims are allowed to do all sorts of things that will get the non-Muslim killed.

  • brianmacker

    Why, do you think there is a history of Christians finding inspiration in the bible for blowing up passenger jets?    I very much doubt Harris, an atheist, would pass up such an opportunity to score points.    

  • I fail to see what political ideology has to do with the efficacy of profiling argument.  I defy you to find anything I’ve said on this topic that betrays my political stripes.  From unrelated comments, sure, but bringing it into this is just a chance for you to name call people who you identify as not being in your group.  Granted, there’s been a lot of that going on here, so it’s not new, but I wasn’t expecting it from you.

    I should probably ignore the GW segue, but:

    We know for sure that the carrying capacity of the earth is way less that a billion humans without fossil fuels

    I missed the bulletin where we suddenly stop using fossil fuels without replacing them with anything else.

    I’ll skip casting aspersions about conservative arguments.

  • Sorry, I was so distracted I missed the real point.  The cost to terrorists to find people in the target group is inversely proportional to the savings obtained by not screening that group.  So it’s expensive to find 80-year-old-Okinawan-females to be terrorists.  We don’t save a whole heck of a lot by skipping the screening of them either.  The bigger the pool we skip, the bigger the pool the terrorists draw from.

  • brianmacker

    “I see a great movie plot here where terrorists kidnap an 80-year-old-from-Okinawa’s great-grand daughter forcing the 80-year-old-from-Okinawa to carry a bomb onto a plane.  ”
    Which is a lot harder than doing it yourself if you believe that martyrdom gets you into heaven.   It’s been done and that is what additional random searches are for.

  • Ok, let me rephrase that.

    No, because you’ve given them an attractive cost benefit trade-off.  They can do something more expensive, and skip screening.

    Sure it depends on the actual cost, and the ‘value’ of skipping screening, but the point is it’s not a full gain for ‘our’ side.  For the cost you are applying to them, you are giving up the chance that they can accept that cost and better bypass your system.

  • No, that’s not terrorism.  That’s me brain farting.

  • keddaw

     You seem to jump from using boxcutters to make a plane into a guided missile to blowing up passenger jets, any reason why?  (No undertones, just a question.)

    The simple fact is that post-9/11 no-one is going to be able to take over a jet from outside the cockpit so the only damage that can be done is to blow it out the sky.  This is probably best/easiest achieved by being on board with the explosive as it makes the explosive much simpler (manual trigger) and the timing much more accurate (better in mid-air over a city than on the runway) but post-9/11 there have been major advances in intelligence gathering (the FBI have email!) as well as passengers being much more wary of suspicious behaviour onboard.

    So, we currently have limited damage that can be done by a successful terrorist, security services better able to find, track and intercept terrorists, more alert staff and passengers onboard and an actual risk factor of being killed in a terrorist attack on an airliner smaller than dying in a malfunctioning aircraft.  And none of this is due to profiling or enhanced airport security since 9/11.

    Rather than using logic to ask for a massive reduction in pointless, intrusive security measures, Sam instead advocates a policy of dubious efficacy that will infringe the rights of many people and lead to a systematic profiling of people based on race (high-school educated TSA officials not using their authority in accordance with their prejudices?)  Sam, and his proposal, may not be strictly racist but in its implementation you can bet it most certainly will be.

  • brianmacker

    I wasn’t talking about you specifically, or at all.   This is a general liberal blind spot.    This profiling argument is an example of it (as are the accusations of racism).   It’s not hard to understand that it is cheaper to profile than not yet they just don’t get it.   

    Your comment about replacing fossil fuels with something else hasn’t stopped liberals from acting to uneconomically reduce fossil fuel use now in irrational  and uneconomical ways before any credible technologies exist.     There is surely a cost on the econmic margin in human deaths in their proposals.     Ethanol subsidies being the perfect example and how many more people starved because of higher food cost.     All based on the justification of quite low odds of any actual harm from CO2, or climate change.    James Hanson for one has called to  ” phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels.”     We have NO technology that provides for this, and zero prospects at this point.

    Liberals self identify as such and are proud that this is their issue.   So I don’t see how it is name calling.  In fact, they make a point of demonizing their out group for not buying their irrationality on the subject.  Calling people racists and denialists.  

    I don’t care what you have to say about conservatives, because I don’t have a “group”.     They have their blind spots also.    I agree on issues when I think that people have reason on their side.

    Sorry I should have written that more carefully.   I had taken your last comment as a bit of an awakening and thought you might be amenable to this argument.

  • brianmacker

    That all depends on how many people are in the group that does not get profiled.    One can either a population with lots of 80 year old Okinawan females, or one can have lots of other people that are not in the profiled group.     Considering that Muslims make up around a few percent of the population that amounts to enormous savings.  The savings  isn’t purely in the number of screeners that one needs to hire but also in the time wasted for the passengers.

    One doesn’t need to “skip” the rest of the pool.   One still can profile them in other ways.    Like asking if they packed their own bags, and using random checks. 

    You profile members of Al Queda, and advocates of terrorism by not letting them travel by plane at all regardless of race or nationality,  Saudi nationals get extra inspection regardless of affiliation,  people who look like Saudi nationals with Icelandic passports are checked,  Icelandic nationals who look the part get only random checking,  etc.

    If you find that the terrorist adapt then you adapt.

    Personally the idea that we check people for fingernail clippers after we have installed properly secure doors on the cockpits is ridiculous.   It’s ridiculous even without cockpit doors.   

  • I_Claudia

    Harris has again changed the conditions of his profiling. His initial position, that he has not backed down from, is that special scrutiny should apply to those who “look Muslim”. The above “thought experiment” is a different matter entirely.

    For starters it involves someone who is already being given special scrutiny. TSA does not go through your things by hand as a matter of routine. Secondly it involves someone who is nervous and who thought ahead of hiding something. Of course it could be that they’re nervous because they know that being identified as a devout Muslim young man can lead to their mistreatment and abuse. Still, let’s play this thing out. What do you do with someone whose things are being gone through by hand? You search them, you maybe put them and him through a more advanced scanner, you frisk the person…and then what? What if you find nothing? Are you supposed to not let the person fly, or strap on some latex gloves for a “special search” based on them having a Qur’an, when it’s at least as likely if not more that they wanted to hide their book to prevent, say, some bigoted jackass from causing a ruckuss about you being dangerous and getting you kicked off a plane (which has happened before)?

    Harris correctly assumes that many if not most of us WOULD be more suspicious if a Qur’an dropped out. However having an initial impulse and it being a good idea to follow through on that impulse is a different thing, and also involves a different situation to that which Harris initially described.

    So once more with feeling; Mr. Harris, what does a Muslim look like?

  • Considering that Muslims make up around a few percent of the population that amounts to enormous savings.

    We’re not looking for Muslims since, we’re looking for people who look like they could be Muslim, which includes Sam Harris and most of Malaysia.

    Not matter what number you pick, it’s still a trade-off.  As you save more by screening fewer, you increase the odds that a terrorist can bypass your screening.

    If you find that the terrorist adapt then you adapt.

    So, after they blow up a plane, we adapt again?

    Personally the idea that we check people for fingernail clippers after we have installed properly secure doors on the cockpits is ridiculous.

    Ya, no argument there.  In fact most of our restrictions are senseless, in particular since there’s no consequence for attempting to take on a prohibited item.  All they do is make me toss my water bottle.  So I keep trying until they miss it.

  • It’s not hard to understand that it is cheaper to profile than not yet they just don’t get it.

    It’s not hard to understand that it’s more dangerous to profile than not yet they just don’t get it.

     In fact, they make a point of demonizing their out group for not buying their irrationality on the subject.  Calling people racists and denialists.  

    Everybody does that.

    It’s been fun, but now I’m going to bed.

  •  That’s only true if recruiting all groups is equally easy, thus the cost of finding a candidate is proportional to the rarity of the kind of person.

    That doesn’t seem likely to be true.

    There may well be groups that have many members who flies, and thus would be costly to search, yet are *also* on the average hard to recruit for suicide-missions.

  •  That assumes that it’s equally easy for them to send any kind of person. If they have a equally good supply of people of all ages, genders and races, why then, do they not use them ?

    I agree on those specifics they can easily change: checking first-class more/less is pointless because it *is* trivial for terrorists to adapt to that.

    I’m not convinced it’s equally easy for them to adapt to 50-year-old females from Iceland that look the part, being checked more seldom than 25 year old males from Afghanistan.

  • Coyotenose

     Doesn’t the Koran explicitly say to NOT do what suicide bombers do? Specifically killing oneself and killing noncombatants?

    That would be like profiling Christians because… hang on, I’m sleepy, but there must be something the Bible says to not do that it doesn’t also say is okay somewhere else…

  • Coyotenose

    We have quite good information on both the evidences for and the damages from climate change, thanks. If anything, we’re being very conservative in our estimations of them.

    Do you also believe that the American colonies should have hung back from revolt another half century or so until they had the infrastructure to put up a more credible fight? How about WWII? Should we have waited a couple more years to join in, and developed tech in the meantime?

    How about space exploration? We didn’t and still do not have economically feasible and reliable technology in use for that. Maybe if we just sit and wait it will magically happen on its OWN.

    The rest is just you projecting and obsessing.

    Islam isn’t a “race”, thanks.

  • Lesson of the day.. if you are going to commit some kind of crime, carry a Quran with you then you can simply claim religious profiling and not be responible for anything for you right?

  • dantresomi

    profiling is wrong. as a victim of it, i have to disagree  with Sam harris. In his original piece he bought good points as to why what the TSA does is ridiculous and that we have to change the way we conduct searches at airports. I mean making  a woman drink her own breast milk, WTH? 

    I think at the end he is going to realize he is dead wrong at that approach. Profiling DOESN’T work and it just violates people in so many ways. 

  • Usually when you’re in a hole the best thing to do is stop digging.

  • I think you’re giving Harris too much credit.  First of all, he’ll never be “proven wrong.” This isn’t a pass or fail proposition.  And if you’ve read Harris, you know he will just dig in deeper and deeper, and never admit he’s wrong about anything (is there a significant example of Harris ever making such an admission?).  See “The Moral Landscape,” e.g.  That’s a mountain of wrong, and his never-ending defense of it was embarrassing.

    But I’m more concerned with your supposition that atheists are supposed to “debate, discuss, use reason and evidence, listen to the experts, admit if/when we’re wrong, and then keep asking more questions. ”  Atheists are not supposed to do anything, and your expectations are probably a projection of your own experience as a reasonable person who happens to be an atheist.  There are plenty of atheists (probably more than not, by sheer numbers) — Buddhists, Objectivists, nihilists, solipsists, who do not fit the profile of reasonable skeptic.

  • FurryMoses

    Not specifically. There’s as much to inspire one to die while fighting jihad as there is for not killing yourself. You then take your pick which seems to be more important and interpret it the way you need.

  • FurryMoses

     I’m amazed how many people “assume” they have “rationality” on their side and then use this sort of unjustified, aloof confidence to dig deep their position.
    brainmakcer has answered perfectly below, but if you are going to claim reason & logic then you must use it to justify what you say. If there’s no time or space, then don’t claim it.

  • FurryMoses

    I also think it’s fascinating to watch the number of people who claim “logic” and “reason” on their side so confidently and use it like a magic shield to dismiss Sam’s arguments. I was initially thinking he might be wrong (without committing), but I’ve barely heard a sensible, targeted reply against his position.

    It now seems like much more fun to defend him because out of the woodwork come a swathe of ridiculous, emotional arguments from people claiming to be reasoned, logical skeptics.

    Please don’t bother using the word “reason” or “logic” in a sentence, if you can’t employ it at the same time. It requires arguments to be countered and not simply “dismissed”.

  • Brian Macker

    No it doesn’t.   Absolutely not.  It advocates the opposite.  It explicitly advocates spreading terror through the land.   It also gives all sorts of justifications for considering noncombantants to be guilty, not innocent.     Mohammad chopped the head off every male with pubes in one Jewish tribe on the theory that they were all guilty because  …. wait for it … he suspected a few of them snitched on him in his plans to raid some other tribe.    It reads like something written by a psychopath … well because it was.

  • BrianMacker

    Actually I think I misremembered what plans were divulged.    None the less he practiced and taught a kind of group punishment like the Nazis used.

  • Blahblahblah

    I’ll have to read that verbose post later. I do have a response to that thought experiment. In a world in which Muslim profiling at airports is a thing, of course a normal Muslim would try to hide their Arabic Qur’an if they were just flying. If they were suicidal terrorist and they knew about the profiling, they would not be so f-ing stupid as to bring a Qur’an. Why does he insist on such idiotic scenarios?
    In a non-profiling scenario, I would be suspicious in general of every single one of those and would ask for further checks, except for C because that’s understandable.

  • The Captain

    Just because they didn’t think of it first, doesn’t mean they can’t copy it!

    You’d also be stupid for thinking a Muslim wouldn’t lynch you since christians thought that up first too.

  • RebeccaSparks

    The problem with this argument is that it assumes the second party is required to carry out terrorism directly instead of merely not being searched.  But there are 2 other scenerios that the search everyone policy looks to prevent.

    A. A person carrying an undesirable object (like a weapon) on board, and will pass object to a more capable but more likely to be searched person once on the plane
    B. A person carrying an undesirable object that needs no human intervention (i.e. a bomb).

    In neither of these two scenarios does the patsy even need to know what the object is or its purpose.  

  • I can only say that the hysterical response to Sam Harris over the last week has successfully highlighted his criticism of how the secular community tends to treat Islam with a much softer touch than the way in which we treat Christianity.

    For instance: I’ve seen plenty of atheists defending the passages of the Koran which they say condemns violence towards innocents.

    When was the last time atheists went around defending the passages in the bible which condemn violence? Do we atheists usually go around reciting Jesus’s words of love and peace as opposed to the insane stupidity contained elsewhere in both the old and new testaments?

    I think not.

  • Smorg Smorg

     ” I’ve seen plenty of atheists defending the passages of the Koran which they say condemns violence towards innocents.”

    I’ve had a different experience, I guess. I haven’t seen atheists defending the violent passages in the Koran. I have, however, seen atheists (and quite a few theists) refusing to single out the Koran as a pro-violent book as if it is the only religious book to do such a thing (’cause there are pro-violent passages in the Bible and even the Gita and other religious and non-religious texts, too. Why single the Koran out and let the Torah and the Bible and the others go un-profiled?).

  • I didn’t say that I saw atheists defending the violent passages of the Koran. I said the opposite: I’ve seen atheists defending the Koran by citing non-violent passages which state that it would go against Islam to sanction the killing of innocents. There is a big difference, so please read my comment again. =)

    I never said, nor did Sam Harris, that the Koran is the only “holy book” of violence.

    But let’s be real for a moment: suicide bombing has been mostly a Muslim phenomenon. The reasons are varied and have been argued ad nauseam (literally – please let’s not argue it again). But does that matter? Does it matter when you just get down to the results? The results are that the highest risk of suicide bombers in the world, by far, are Muslim terrorists. Slice, dice, and spin it however you want but that’s just the plain fact. I’m not just talking about airliners but about suicide bombers in cafes, schools, plazas, bars, discotheques, restaurants, and any other public venue there is. When it comes to suicide bombings, outside of Tamil Tigers (in a very specific place which 99% of us will not be visiting), you’re talking about Muslims. End of story. There is no “But” there.

    It’s like when I talk about abortion clinic bombers: I’m talking about Christians. Ok? I don’t go around saying “You know, those bombers are so terrible, but Christianity really doesn’t condone this sort of violence. Why, it says so right here in these passages and I think it’s racist to talk about profiling Christians who are protesting near abortion clinics or doctors.”

    I wouldn’t say that because it’s bloody stupid to say that. If I did say that, it would be because, for a variety of reasons, I don’t want to offend Christians – because they’re a minority, or they’re sensitive to the point of wanting to riot with more violence and killings in response to my words. Either way, the fact is that we treat Christians differently than we treat Muslims.

    If Sam had come out and started talking about profiling Christians approaching abortion doctors and abortion clinics, I can guarantee you that the bullshit from our community would have been far less pronounced. And why is that? Because most people in our community are “uncomfortable” with  *their* own perception of what a Muslim is. Sure, they talk up a big storm about how so many races, colors, and creeds make up the “Muslim” community, but deep down they’re thinking one bloody thing: “Arabs”. Or, to put it another way: “Brown skinned people”. And you know, that just makes people queasy when you start talking about criticizing them for their “indigenous” beliefs.

    I’m sorry, but that’s a racist stance. Absolutely nobody has come out and said that this is what they think, but it’s so patently obvious in their reaction. Sam might as well have said something akin to “Let’s profile black people” in the way that people have reacted to him. They’ve acted as if he’s declared that we should profile an entire race.

    Well, he hasn’t. But that reaction is so clearly misguided, so unfounded on what our community often declares they believe to be the truth, that it deserves a big bloody knockdown in the public sphere.

    I’ve been accused of the same thing countless times: racism. Racism, because I don’t think of the Koran as a great book full of wisdom from an “indigenous” people whose ways, I was told O so often, I would only understand if I knew them a little bit better. Yes, that’s what racists get told when they say they don’t like certain races, and that’s how I get treated when I criticize Islam.

    Well, I have news for you: I’m not a racist. I don’t think of Muslims as “brown skinned people”. Islam is a religion – a color blind religion, but with incredibly strong ties to Arab supremacy, both in language, culture, history, and tradition. If anything, Islam is partly “racist”. My criticism of it is not. My criticism of it is founded on the results of over a thousand years of Muslim history in the world, in the exact same way that my criticism of Christianity is founded upon everything in history including the Crusades, the Inquisition, and even the Holocaust. I treat Islam with the same die-hard sledgehammer which I use to knock idiotic Christian Fundamentalists around; the same scorn; the same utter bewilderment that people can believe and have “faith” in something so utterly bloody stupid.

    You know what? Creationists are fools and idiots. People who accept “Jesus” as their savior are deluded sheep. People who even try to define what we need “saving” from are knaves.

    The same goes for those Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and the West Bank. They’re morons. They live in this 18th century world of some sort of ghetto-mentality which is an entire culture within one of the most isolated bubbles which I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing several times for myself.

    And guess what: Muslim fundamentalists, or even just “believing” Muslims are the same: Morons, idiots, and bloody stupid. They’re deluded people who grew up knowing nothing else and should, if only they knew it, get the hell away from this stupid way of thinking.

    I’m not going to shy away from saying that. And I’m not going to stop saying it. I’m going to keep bitching about how the secular community, by and large, is entirely hypocritical in their approach to Islam. They defend the Muslim community at every turn, saying that it’s a good community and that the Koran isn’t the poison that some people make it out to be. Guess what? I don’t give a damn. The Bible isn’t filled with poison either, but we treat it as if it is, because that is the result which most concerns us.

    Go on philosophizing about how Christians can turn to suicide bombing, or even religious Jews – hey! I won’t even argue with you. They could, in some cases, do this. But until now, it’s been a mostly Muslim phenomenon. It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been the occasional Christian or Jewish “martyr” (Baruch Goldstein comes to mind), but the acts are so rare that it doesn’t make an entire trend. Islamic suicide bombing *does* make a trend, and it’s a bloody trend we should be careful about. And the day that you start getting a trend in Christian or Jewish, or even Hindu suicide bombings all over the world, I’ll start screaming that we should watch them carefully as well and figure out a way to stop it.

    Until then, I’m going to deal with every day reality instead of wishing it weren’t true because it makes me suddenly “uncomfortable”.

  • Steve

    The error in logic here is that the hypothetical man’s nervous behavior is what drives this experiment.  If he was perfectly calm I would ask him why he’s hiding the book, and perhaps he’d say, “when I travel with the Quran I get occasionally harassed by other passengers, so I choose to hide it rather than be stereotyped.”  In that situation, I would not be the least bit perturbed. 

    On the other hand, if I were a TSA agent and I saw someone get extremely nervous when I discovered that ANY book he was carrying had a fake dust jacket, I would be suspicious, regardless of the dust jacket and the underlying book.  This is the essence of behavior profiling, and has nothing to do with religion.

  • I just want to apologize for writing such a long piece. It got out of hand. =) Don’t read it if you don’t want to read a whole dissertation on my views.

  • Smorg Smorg

     It is long, but I think it merits a like vote. Thanks for writing it! 🙂

    I’m still not sold on Harris’ suggestion, though. Perhaps putting up with Mormon missionaries for a few months made me more idealistic than realistic, but I don’t think the end justifies the means. I’d rather the non-bombing Muslims go unharassed along with some bombers than the other way around (sort of like how the American justice system is supposed to prioritize tolerating letting some perps get away with things than  to wrongfully convict an innocent… It doesn’t work out perfectly in real life, but it is worth striving for, seeing the alternatives).

  • Well, actually, I wrote before that I wasn’t entirely sold on Harris’s idea either. =) I think it’s worth the conversation but I don’t know how practical it is in an every day setting. I wrote last week on here as well that I wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea, or that it would even work.

    But I also wrote that I wanted the conversation and to see the reaction which stems from it. Harris has been making this point for years, and always to the scorn from the community. But I think he’s right that it is a major issue. Whenever he starts talking about the dangers of Islam, the room falls quiet. It’s a mistake on our part as a community which I think that he, and I, and some few others, wish to rectify.

  • Shouldbeworkin’

    “If you care more about A than B, C, or D, as I think you should, you are guilty of religious profiling (and calling it “behavioral profiling” doesn’t change this fact).”

    Well, see, that’s the problem. I don’t care more about A than B,C, or D. If you think I should, you should explain why.

  • Tom

    It’s called “taking your chances.”  It’s a gamble to send people on planes who with the right kind of knowledge/equipment can use that environment to cause harm to others.

    And you REDUCE THE CHANCES OF THAT HAPPENING by not taking chances with certain people, and the argument that Middle Eastern looking men are worth profiling.  There are losers, and I applaud you for having the empathy for those who would have no desire to hurt others but happen to fit the profile.  But there have been other losers, people who have lost even their lives because of people who wish suffering on others.

    I don’t want anyone to lose, but if some people have to lose a sense of privacy or some other feeling of violation to on the small small chance stop an actual VIOLENT act, it’s worth it.  I wonder if many here, who are concerned about the feelings of those who would be profiled, are not empathizing with victims of airline terror attacks, who could have benefited from profiling.

    I’m starting to see this as an issue of: are many instances of insulted feelings/inconvenience losses worth more than  relatively very few instances of harm/violence and suffering.

    I have a strong sense of empathy towards those who have lost someone or been hurt by terror attacks perpetrated by believers in Jihad.  My intuition there sways my conscience towards those people, away from those whom, while bravely defending the dignity of passengers, are really not keeping anybody from being physically harmed.  That is the ultimate desire here, not to boss people around.

  • Tom

    “I wonder if many here, who are concerned about the feelings of those who would be profiled, are not empathizing ENOUGH with victims of airline terror attacks, who could have benefited from profiling.”
    I forgot to add ENOUGH, or else that would have been very insulting, and I don’t mean to.

  • I applaud you for having the empathy for those who would have no desire to hurt others but happen to fit the profile. 

    Then you have misunderstood my argument entirely.  I’ve never said anything here about empathy or ethics or morality.  That stuff may come into it, but my argument is based solely on the efficacy of profiling.  My position is that profiling (basing how much screening you apply to someone based on what they look like or what they’re carrying) is less secure.  That’s it.  You can disagree with me, but if you think my argument has anything to do with not hurting anyone’s feelings, or being fair, you’re countering the wrong argument. 

  • It’s not hard to understand that it is cheaper to profile than not yet they just don’t get it.

    If you’re suggesting that our primary deciding factor regarding whether we should or shouldn’t profile is how much it costs, rather than whether or not it’s ethical, I’m not sure it’s the liberals who have a problem here.

  • I wrote a blogpost about his original statement.

    Since Sam still hasn’t offered any “profile” on how exactly to recognise Muslims merely by glancing at them, I feel perfectly justified in standing by my blogpost.

    Either Sam is advocating racial profiling, or Sam thinks that Muslim terrorists dress the part. In either case he’s wrong.

  • I think we’re both right.  I think that correlation still exists, you’ve pointed out that the slope is not equal for all populations.  So if you do buy Sam’s argument (which I still don’t) then you certainly want to pick populations to skip  which give you the best cost benefit.

  • Pseudonym

    As any security expert will tell you, using profiling increases the available pool of suitable attackers. Expending resources on examining a sector of people based entirely on external attributes means that you take resources away from examining people without those external attributes. Any smart would-be evildoer will quickly find out what kind of person airport security tends to leave alone, and start sending that person.

    If you recall, the latest attack on the US air infrastructure didn’t even bother with people; they just sent parcels. It’s only a matter of time before they start attacking the security queues instead of the aircraft.

  • Pseudonym


    Wow, that’s a weird thought experiment

    Yes, Sam Harris is fond of unlikely scenarios. Remember, he’s the one who came up with the magic Hollywood-issue torture pill.

    Bear in mind that I am not a security screener, and I
    am not trained in spotting people who might do bad things. I’m probably
    on par with Sam Harris when it comes to complete and utter ignorance of
    such matters. Nonetheless, I’ll play along.

    Of the four people, I would be most suspicious of the person with the copy of Dianetics.

    Were I a security screener, and someone looked unusually nervous going through airport security, I’d want to know exactly why they were nervous and wouldn’t be satisfied until I knew.

    Possessing a copy of Overcoming Impotence is reason enough to be nervous. So is possessing a copy of The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. I can see why anyone might hide those. But there’s nothing wrong with possessing a copy of the Qur’an or Dianetics; there is no grounds to be nervous there. is not grounds to be nervous, but hiding a copy of either is.

    Indeed, the person with the copy of the Qur’an may have more reason to be nervous because they might assume (correctly, if Agent Harris happens to be on shift that day) that airport security is more likely to mistreat people just for being Muslim.

  • Pseudonym

    Patty Hearst. Just saying.

  • Tom

    Oh I’m sorry, I guess I should take my compliment back about your empathy as it wasn’t brought up by you.

    So you say your argument makes no case about fairness.  And that’s exactly why it’s flawed.  You desire to make this only a matter of practicality, yet you have no proposed alternative.

    You rely heavily on the notion that if the bad guys know what we’re looking for, they just wont look the picture.  But these are not chameleons, they are humans, and have a new task ahead of them once patterns of their behavior, background and appearance are found.  And they have patterns.  That don’t involve many other demographics.

    I challenge you to demonstrate the efficacy of not profiling.  And if you want, tell me if you were in charge of the TSA would you be willing to test it live? 

  • In my case it is, mostly because arguing the ends vs. the means will never get us anywhere, but costs, I think, can.

    We can easily come up with numbers for cost (dollars and time) and with some difficulty come up with some rough estimates of benefit (terrorist attacks averted?) but even though Sam assures us it can be done, I’m not sure how to measure Muslim butthurt.

    btw, Bruce Schneier’s response is up

    I think he missed one point (probably deliberately) sheep that spend all their time looking for wolves risk the chance of ignoring bears.

  • brianmacker

    “As you save more by screening fewer, you increase the odds that a terrorist can bypass your screening.”

    This is where you are not understanding the math.  The whole purpose of profiling is to increase the odds of catching someone.       If you only get to search 10 people out of 100 the profiling increases your odds of catching more perps.

  • brianmacker

    Conservative?   The IPCC ridiculously claimed that the Himalayan glaciers would melt be 2035.     On top of that claiming that it would reduce runoff.   Both are idiotic claims if you know the processes and rates involved.

    The computer models have consistently overestimated warming, to the point where James Lovelock just did a mea culpa on his global warming alarmism.  

    Claims were made about Hurricanes that turned out to be completely wrong.   Claims were made that British children would never see snow again.   So on and so forth.

    I’m not advocating “holding back”.   It is your very economic ignorance that makes you think that way.    I’m objecting to pushing uneconomic technologies that actually cost more in natural resources than they save.    How can you tell?   Because they are not cost effective.    Ethanol is classic in this regard and burns more fossil fuels than it saves.

    Yes, not only space exploration but colonization will happen on it’s own when it makes economic sense.      Instead of wasteful sideshows being put on by the government.   Like going for manned space flight prior to unmanned.

    I didn’t say Islam was a race, but don’t let that stop you.

  • brianmacker

    There is nothing about the argument that assumes you cannot follow many strategies at once.     For example one can do random searches but search Muslims in greater overall proportion.  

  • brianmacker

    Oh fuck then I guess we shouldn’t ever take any approaches because they will automatically learn the methods and do something different.  That’s just a silly argument.

  • Pseudonym

    This is not dealing with the meat of your comment, but I have a few random thoughts.


    When it comes to suicide bombings, outside of Tamil Tigers (in a very
    specific place which 99% of us will not be visiting), you’re talking
    about Muslims.

    And more than 1% of us will be visiting Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon or Chechnya at some point in the near future? Unless you’re in the military, that seems unlikely.

    Here’s the key thing to keep in mind: Terrorism, at least in the west, is rare. It’s so rare that almost nothing about it rises to the level of statistical significance. I’ll be talking more about this later.

    Incidentally, Muslims may make up 90% of the perpetrators of suicide attacks, but they also make up 90% of the victims. I’d feel a little better about Sam Harris if he at least acknowledged that rather crucial fact at some point.

    Sure, they talk up a big storm about how so many races, colors, and
    creeds make up the “Muslim” community, but deep down they’re thinking
    one bloody thing: “Arabs”.

    I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve known a few dozen Muslims over the years, some of them quite closely. I’m pretty sure I’ve only known one who was Arab, and he was a refugee from Iraq who every now and then ranted about (his words) “Wahhabi bastards”. Pretty much all of the Muslims I’ve known are Indonesian, Malay, Somali or Persian.

    People have this habit of selection bias and focussing on only tangentially-relevant details. Any time someone suggests profiling Muslims, or black people, or whatever, I’m reminded of the a joke told in the movie industry of the Hollywood producer who noticed that in the top two grossing movies of the summer, the protagonist wears a red shirt, and so buys more movies involving people wearing red shirts.

    Sam Harris talks a lot about the supposed “threat of Islam” to the West, this assertion is difficult to justify by when you look at terrorism as a whole. If you stayed in North America or Europe, then in the last 10 years you are far more likely to be killed or injured by Chechen separatists than Arab-Muslim-Wahhabist terrorists.  Hell, you were more likely to be killed or injured by the lone nutter in Norway last year.

    Given that the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims do not commit terrorist acts, and that a significant proportion of terrorist threats to the West are not Islamist in origin, profiling Muslims specifically seems an awful lot like selection bias at best, and superstition at worst.

  • brianmacker

    Yep, a combination of profiling on many different factors including race, national origin, religion, etc.   Which is exactly what is being suggested.     No hands off on any approach.

  • Pseudonym

    Don’t get me wrong, the TSA does a great job at preventing the previous terrorist attack. Unfortunately, it’s the ones in the future that they’re supposed to be protecting against.

  • Math isn’t what separates us.

    If Bruce’s guest post doesn’t sway you, then nothing will.  I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last 11 years.  I honestly think most kinds  of profiling are bad for security, for the reasons Bruce lays out.  I felt that way before I first read any of his arguments on it, but he did add to my reasons and solidify them.

  • That I’m not relying on the fairness argument doesn’t mean I don’t think it exists.  I just think it’s a waste of time because it gets away from pragmatics and into emotion.  We’ll all scream and call each other racist and ignorant of the evils of Islam and not get anywhere.

    no proposed alternative

    I, and others, are reacting to what we see as a flawed proposal by Sam that we feel would make us less secure.  If you want to have the alternatives discussion, then I’d suggest Bruce’s blog is a better place.

    I challenge you to demonstrate the efficacy of not profiling.  And if you want, tell me if you were in charge of the TSA would you be willing to test it live?

    Not that I think what we’re doing now is a great use of resources, but, um, it is ‘not profiling’.  So, ya, the TSA is ‘testing it live’ so to speak.

  •  No. By screening some people less, you get time to screen other people -more- given finite resources.

    If those other people are more likely to be guilty, this will lead to you catching -more- terrorists, not less.

  • I gave you a “like” even though I disagree with some of what you said. =)

    Good points! All of them. However, as somebody who recently moved from France to Israel (for work in the tech sector), I don’t exactly have to go far to risk a suicide bombing. The nearest cafe, or restaurant will do. Or, heck, just the nearest market to do my shopping. I don’t have to go to Chechnya, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

    Now, I’ve written plenty of times that the majority of victims in suicide bombings are Muslim, so I have no disagreement there. I completely agree. I can’t remember when I’ve heard Sam say the same, but I think he’s pointed it out before. Hitchens surely has as well.

    Sam is, however, talking about airports which are everywhere in the world. And in an airplane, if your’e going to risk a suicide bomber, it’s almost wholly likely that it is going to come from a Muslim terrorist. That’s the trend. As I said: if Jews and Christians start doing it as well, I’ll be calling for them to be profiled as well in airports.

    You can stay in North America or Europe and that’s fine, but if you’re in an airport then your biggest risk is from suicide bombers on a plane (barring accidents). So why not take that risk, assess it wisely, accept the facts about the trend, and deal with it accordingly?

    He isn’t calling for Muslims to be profiled who are driving, or walking down the street, or going into cafes in Europe (although here in Israel, you might start disagreeing with that last one). He’s calling for profiling in airports alone.

    While it’s true that if you don’t visit an airport in North America or Europe that you almost will never experience a terrorist attack, nor will your children or grandchildren, the statistics start going up when you’re on a plane. That’s all he’s talking about in that piece which I can gather.

    It’s pretty amazing to me that so many secularists are on the left, such as myself, and love to distinguish things with lots of nuance. However, when it comes to anything which makes us uncomfortable, nuance flies out of the window. The nuance here is that it depends on where you are the the circumstance you are in. Painting terrorism as a broad statistic against every day life makes it completely unlikely – it’s true. But in certain situations, it makes it far more likely and dangerous to ignore.

  • Pseudonym

    I gave you a “like” even though I disagree with some of what you said. =)
    Thanks. 🙂

    I did like your comment, too. There was a lot in there, and I only felt moved to respond to a small part of it.

    However, as somebody who recently moved
    from France to Israel (for work in the tech sector), I don’t exactly
    have to go far to risk a suicide bombing.
    Fair enough.

    The emphasis on suicide attacks is an interesting one that’s worth thinking about.

    First off, were I killed or injured by a terrorist, I can’t see it mattering to me or my family if it was a suicide attack or not.

    Secondly, I can’t help thinking that in retrospect, some group was eventually bound to take up suicide attacks in a big way in the post-Cold War era. The Cold War was predicated on mutually assured destruction, where if you attacked the United States or Western Europe, you risked your country being destroyed. If you think of that as a selection pressure, then after the Cold War, inevitably some group would evolve which didn’t have a country to destroy, and didn’t fear being destroyed anyway.

    It’s entirely an accident of history that the foreign fighters associated with the Mujahideen happened to be the best place to become that group at the right time in history: they were already high off what they saw as a victory, and sufficiently well-funded.

    If it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else.  Hell, if the Tamil Tigers had won their war, they might be exporting it to the rest of the world. And then Sam Harris would be talking up the Hindu threat, advocating profiling Hindus in airports, and talking about how the Hindu scriptures are uniquely placed to breed suicide bombers.

  • Again, another like.

    However, I think that some of your words are slightly misplaced. I don’t think that Sam Harris says that the Islam is uniquely placed to breed suicide bombers. He has mentioned, on several occasions, that Buddhists also produced suicide bombers in Japanese fighter pilots. He just doesn’t go that much into it because it is no longer a credible threat in today’s world. It doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again, but that for the time being…Buddhist suicide plane bombers aren’t exactly a topic much worth fretting about. The same applies to Tamil Tigers. There is no history of either one blowing up passenger planes, or cafes around the world, so it’s not as much of a threat. It may be just dormant and worth thinking about from time to time, but we don’t have to worry about it in our current daily lives.

    I should reiterate again that I don’t necessarily think that Sam’s idea is entirely practicable. I’m unconvinced on how one would actually carry out the idea of profiling Muslims in airports unless you base it on names – and even then, I live in a city which has a large Arab majority who is Christian. They have Arab names and Arab features, but they’re Christian and you wouldn’t be able to tell that they are unless you actually ask them.

    But I think the point is the conversation itself. Is Islam more of a threat in terms of suicide bombings today than other religions? I’m not talking about other acts of terrorism which have cropped up in extremists of every other kind of religious and ethnic creed. I’m talking about specific circumstances: suicide bombings in airplanes and other public venues. Is that more of a threat from Islam? Yes it is. Especially where I live, and in certain airports and public spaces around the world. There most certainly is a movement of suicide bombers on a global scale and almost all of them are exclusively Muslim. One could argue that there is a movement of shooting abortion doctors in the U.S. and those are almost exclusively Fundamentalist Christians. I would never argue the contrary. But Sam isn’t proposing that we screen Muslims at abortion clinics or around the homes of doctors and nurses who work in such places. If he did, it would be ludicrous to say the least. All he said was that we should screen Muslims where Muslim terrorists tend to attack the most. I find that a sensible argument, even though I can’t find a practical way to do it. But I can’t disagree with his logic and reasoning of why we should, just as I couldn’t disagree on the same reason to screen Fundamentalist Christians around Abortion Clinics and even Mosques to protect people from radical and insane Christians.

    I’d like to mention that the Israeli police also profiles Ultra Orthodox settlers. In the early 1980’s, they famously stopped a huge plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock by messianic Jews in Israel. They observe these fundamentalists very carefully, and even infiltrate their ranks. All of them were prosecuted and went to jail (I think about ten or twelve of them). When it comes to profiling, one has to profile for the situation in which it is most likely that a certain group will go for that target. That’s what Sam is saying and I have to agree with it.

  • JN

    “However, I think that some of your words are slightly misplaced. I don’t think that Sam Harris says that the Islam is uniquely placed to breed suicide bombers.”

    He most certainly has. This is his exchange with Scott Atran in 2006:

    At 2:30, Sam claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is proof positive that Islam is more violent (or at least more prone to spawning suicide bombers) than Christianity is. When Atran provides a very careful explanation of why his comparison fails, Sam waves it away and moves onto his next talking point.
    Re Buddhism – are you kidding me? Harris has a long history of special pleading and excuses on behalf of Buddhism. Hell, at 2:50 in the same video, he asks “Where are the Buddhist suicide bombers?” – then he repeats a story about Buddhist monks who were tortured and forgave their captors. He then claims that NO devout Muslim would do the same.
    It’s not just this video, either, it’s part of a very long rapsheet Sam has amassed in which he has disingenuously singled out and targeted Islam and Muslims. There is no question where he stands on scripture. These are his words:
    “Yes, the Bible contains its own sadistic lunacy—but the above quotations can be fairly said to convey the central message of the Qur’an—and of Islam at nearly every moment in its history. The Qur’an does not contain anything like a Sermon on the Mount. Nor is it a vast and self-contradictory book like the Old Testament, in which whole sections (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) can be easily ignored and forgotten. The result is a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred that has become a problem for the entire world. And the world still waits for moderate Muslims to speak honestly about it.”
    He believes that Islam is uniquely violent, a threat to democracy and incompatible with Western values in a way that Christianity and other religions are not.
    He also jumped on the crazy train in opposing the “Ground Zero Mosque,” sang praises for bigoted assholes like Terry Jones, who he says are the only people allowed to speak “honestly” about Islam, and more or less assigned collective blame to all Muslims for what happened on 9/11.
    This profiling bullshit is not an isolated case. It is the latest in a long list of reasons of why many atheists who believe in rational and intellectually honest assessments of the issues are not taking Sam seriously.

  • JN

    Atheists are afraid to talking about the “dangers of Islam?” What are you talking about? Where have you been for the last ten years? Every atheist community I have been involved with is inhabited by a certain percentage of ideologues whose only reason for being there is to spread fear and propaganda against Muslims. Not just Islam – Muslims.
    There is a general disdain for religion, and Christianity takes a large brunt of it because of the role it plays in society, particularly in the US. That does not mean that Islam is given any kind of special treatment.
    I have seen atheists pollute forums with propaganda about how the Muslim hordes are taking over Europe, how Islam is incompatible with Western values and needs to be destroyed, yada yada. Some support the agendas of people like Geert Wilders who want to ban the practice of Islam, halt Muslim immigration, and similar such bullshit.
    Then we have people like Pat Condell who relentlessly spew venom against Islam and get millions of views. He is buddy-buddy with bigots like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, even repeating their propaganda in his videos. This is not something that appeals to just a few atheists – it’s fairly mainstream. I don’t see much support for your claim.

  • I’ll just reply here to both your comments. =)

    First: I disagreed with the Ground Zero Mosque hoopla. I actually wrote in LGF comments several times about it (which I can dig up if you like – I post under the name of Summer). I said that as an atheist, I do not wish to see any more Mosques go up on principle, but that I could not see a legal argument against it and that it was their right. I said that I wasn’t happy about building a new mosque, but I wouldn’t side with those rabid anti-Muslim hate mongers. I disagreed with Sam Harris about it. It was a while ago but I will dig up my comments if you wish. I just don’t have too much time atm. But I am on record saying that I thought it should be built if that is what they wished, and that the scum that were backing the anti-Mosque protests were not something I would ever side with out of moral principle alone.

    On Pat Condell: I don’t usually post links to his videos. I used to, but it was a long time ago. The more he’s opened his mouth, the more I’ve disagreed with many of his political stances (not, however, the Arab-Israeli politics which I do, in part, agree with.) However, I’ve also posted (on LGF and a few other places over the last couple of years, actually) that I no longer want to post links to his videos because of the people he sides with. They may be “pro-Israel” outwardly, but I think that they are entirely wrong in their associations, thoughts, and philosophies in general. In fact, I think that they do great damage to Israel by supporting it. Israel doesn’t need friends like those and most Israelis I know don’t listen to them. For example: When Glenn Beck came to “support Israel” in Jerusalem a few months ago (I was here at the time), literally almost nobody showed up. It was a complete disaster for him. I couldn’t have been more pleased. They were hoping for thousand, and they got less than a hundred. It was great to see his hopes dashed.

    On Pamela Geller and Spencer: I’m extremely well known on LGF, since a very, very, long time, on my ripping them a new anus in public. Since Charles at LGF is the one which made this feud the most well known of all, it’s easy to look up there in most of his posts about them. I regularly crop up and call them out for what they are: bigoted, insane, assholes who side with Nazis. I’ll have nothing to do with them and I’m well known for saying so loudly and many times over and over again. (My Sarah Palin impressions there are very known as well, thank you very much. =) )

    On Sam Harris and Buddhism: I’ve seen a few debates where he says that Buddhism can be twisted into suicide bombing, mentioning the Kamikaze pilots of WWII. I don’t have time to find the relevant videos (I know there’s more than one) right now, but here’s a transcript from The Science Network:

    “The Buddhists are being mistreated by the Chinese in Tibet. Buddhism doesn’t have – it’s possible
    to get Buddhist violence, and we had Buddhist violence in World War II, Zen Buddhism was very
    flexible in helping to inspire the Kamikaze pilots, Zen Shinto national war ethic, but it’s harder to
    bend Tibetan Buddhism into a death cult. We don’t have Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers
    blowing themselves up on Chinese buses. It’s not, it wouldn’t be impossible, but it’s much less
    likely, and it’s less likely because of what they believe.”

    He’s said the same thing in other interviews/discussions as well.

    By the way, I don’t always agree with Sam Harris, as I’ve said, but I don’t think he falls into the Pamela Geller camp. I think it’s just more that he’s unafraid to criticize things and take on controversial subjects for the debate.

    Again: if you wish, I will get you my own quotes on these subjects if you don’t believe me. I’ve been on record for years against the haters. I’m not a hater of Muslims. I don’t like Islam, and I’ve made absolutely no secret of it. But I have stood up against those who demonize Muslims.

  • Tom

    Ok, if you believe that. I don’t for a second think that profiling isn’t going on already.  It doesn’t happen to be official, but you’re ignorant if you don’t think it isn’t practiced

  • JN

    “But I have stood up against those who demonize Muslims.”

    And I will give you credit for that.

    However, we have many people within the atheist community who are still part of this problem. No, Harris is not in the Geller camp. He is, however, an enabler, by giving them a kind of credibility that they don’t deserve (spreading hate is not “speaking honestly”) and siding with them on key issues like the Mosque. I am glad you agree that he was wrong on this.

    To me, this behavior is pretty good reason not to take him seriously. However, the even larger reason is that he’s simply not an intellectually honest interlocutor when it comes to many of these issues. The Atran exchange is a pretty good illustration of his tendency to rely on oversimplifications and talking points, tossing aside inconvenient facts and evidence because they don’t fit with his agenda. Yes, he’s very well-spoken and presentable, but his arguments are generally no better than those of the average cable news talking head.

  • 0xabad1dea

    I said “proof of wrongdoing” in the casual sense of “proof we should be upset with this person” because the scenario seemed to imply that the person was already being scrutinized closer than average if the guards are pulling the covers off his books, and are looking for something specific to get upset about. A Koran is nothing to get upset about.

    Literally hundreds of millions of people have read the Koran – including me one afternoon when I got really bored and there was a copy on the table. Got through a hefty chunk of it, did not radicalize. The number of people who have read the Koran *and actually want to blow up innocent people over religious ideology* are a vanishingly small rounding error compared to the group of people who read the Koran. It hence does not seem likely that the Koran itself causes that.

    According to a quick google, literally a fifth of the human population is Muslim. It is safe to assume that they all have at least SOME exposure to the Koran. If the book itself had a propensity to inspire lethal violence in people, there would be too many terrorists for the world to possibly handle.

    For the record, I also read the Anarchist’s Cookbook when I was twelve. If I found someone with a copy I would be far more inclined to giggle than be worried.

  • brianmacker

    So that would make your original comment read, “…  so obscuring it would not be very much proof we should be upset with this person.”

    Again, we are not profiling them because we are “upset with them”.

    “Got through a hefty chunk of it, did not radicalize.”

    Straw man argument.  I’ve read it too.  I’ve read Mein Kampf and the Little Red Book.    Didn’t radicalize me.   Mainly because I though it was bullshit.

    Do you really think you are making an argument here?   Would you claim that Mein Kampf is not responsible for any violence because you happened to read it and it made you giggle?   The number of people who have read Mein Kampf and personally gassed a Jew is vanishingly small also.

    Why do you think that ratio is so small?   Could it be natural instincts not to kill oneself, and a whole host of other factors, like not actually reading the Qur’an even though you carry one around just to name one?

    “It hence does not seem likely that the Koran itself causes that. ”

    Yeah and lighting doesn’t cause forest fires because of the vast quantity of lighting strikes in comparison to fires.  Not. 

    How do you explain all the “martyrs” who explicitly quote the Koran and Mohammad as inspiration for their acts, and all their relatives and community members who praise them for killing innocents in the name of Islam?  Heck, some Islamic countries give out rewards to suicide bombers.

    ” If the book itself had a propensity to inspire lethal violence in people, there would be too many terrorists for the world to possible handle.”

    Terrorism is only one strategy of violence.  One that requires quite a bit of self sacrifice, money, and proximity, wouldn’t you say?  It also requires a certain amount of faith that we won’t take retributive action.  All the violence on the borders of Islamic countries, their persecution of non-Muslims (and Muslims of different sects) within their countries, their violence against women, gays, same sex couples who don’t abide their archaic rules,  their historical violence (even in their supposedly most enlightened periods), the polls where they support violence, etc.   seems to me perfectly consistent with what I read in the Qur’an.

    Mere lack of proximity of non-Muslims to those billions of Muslims is enough to explain why levels of violence are not higher.    It’s like how much combustion you get an oxidizer.    At low concentrations of oxygen it is hard to start a fire, at a 50/50 mix you get lots of combustion,  when the quantity of fuel to oxygen is low the level of reduced merely by the lack of victims.  Of course it is more complex than that.   For instance, Islam allows non-Muslims to buy their way out of being molested violently. 


  • brianmacker

    Are you sure about that?  How many terrorists has the TSA caught?   It think the answer right now is none.  I’m sure part of the reason there are less attacks are other actions taken like reenforcing cockpit doors, having undercover operatives, etc.

    Which might be a respectable argument against searching anyone.   However, if we are going to search profiling certainly makes sense.

  • brianmacker

    I read his post and he screwed up the math.  He made other errors in argumentation and merely asserted particular claims with no supporting data.

  • Exactly what math?  I didn’t pay close attention to exact numbers, but with the numbers we’re talking about, you can be off by an order of magnitude, and it’s still infitesimal.  Everyone is to some extent  asserting particular claims without supporting evidence.  What seems obvious to me doesn’t to you, and vice versa.

  • Well they missed both shoe and underwear.  But preventing isn’t catching.  We can’t know how many successful attacks there would have been if we hadn’t set up The Grand Ol’ Bolshoi Hall.

  • Pseudonym

     And yet another like. 🙂

    I’m not convinced that suicide bombing should be singled out for specific treatment. The job of those who protect the rest of us from terrorism is to prevent the destruction of lives and (as a secondary concern) property, not to concentrate on one possible means by which it can happen.

    I like that you brought up that the Israeli police also watches Ultra Orthodox groups. It illustrates an extremely important point about counter-terrorist law enforcement: To a first approximation, no terrorist has yet been caught by airport security in the last 10 years. Every single one who has been caught (even if you include the terrorist plots that law enforcement themselves plan) was caught by means of careful and thorough detective work. I don’t think anyone is against that.

    The other thing that nobody is against (as far as I can tell) is trying to ensure that people don’t end up in that life to begin with.

    It’s an axiom of modern policing that the best way to prevent crime is long before it happens. Modern professional police forces try as hard as they can to work with communities where people, especially young people, are vulnerable to being sucked into a life of crime, and try to steer them away from going in that direction.

    This means working with the community, not treating all of them as guilty until proven innocent.

  • Pseudonym

    FWIW, I was being sarcastic about the TSA preventing the previous terror attack. The point is, the TSA is set up to stop threats which won’t be used in the future.

    Yes, the TSA (and, in general, any drag-net checkpoint/screening programme) has caught no terrorists. Every terrorist who has been caught in the last 10 years was caught by careful detective work.

  • Heh, this reply column is getting very thin. And yet another like, as I agree with you for the most part. =)

    I won’t have much time right now to reply as I’m really busy today and the rest of this week/weekend. I do comment here from time to time though so you’ll see me around, or you can see my stream on G+, which I tend to use a lot. =)

    Again, I don’t know how Sam Harris’s idea would be put into practice. I just think that he’s right to bring up the debate as I do see a problem with a large part of Islam when it comes to this phenomenon. It’s the same way I view Christian Fundamentalists when it comes to Gay Marriage (and congrats to Obama, btw, I couldn’t be happier =) ), women’s rights, prayer in the classrooms, and even shootings at various places. I think he’s right not to judge all religions equally in their deeds and preachings as well. I don’t equate the teachings of Jainism with the teachings of Islam, for instance. I think they’re both insane, but one is less threatening than the other for sure. All religions are equally wrong, but not are equal in what they preach – just as not all philosophies are equal in what they preach as well. I think this is a serious mistake that we atheists make when confronting them.

  • brianmacker

    That is true.  I stand corrected.

  • brianmacker

    See Wilson below.    I forgot about deterrence just like you did.

  • RebeccaSparks

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you.

      I don’t see the benefit of following multiple strategies.  Harris forwards profiling so that unlikely suspects
    (i.e. frail elderly and toddlers) don’t get bothered.  The benefits of screening everyone is that it is arguably safer and less racist.  Combining methods  bothers everyone and is arguably racist, without a great increase in security.

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