Sam Harris and the Problem with Profiling Muslims at the Airport September 17, 2015

Sam Harris and the Problem with Profiling Muslims at the Airport

A few years ago, Sam Harris posted an essay in which he said Muslims — or anyone who looks like a Muslim, whatever that means — ought to be specially screened at the airport. We shouldn’t waste our time, he said, on old ladies or kids or people who are obviously not seeking martyrdom. Random searches made no sense to him when that meant wasting valuable time on people who were never going to be a problem.

Is there nothing we can do to stop this tyranny of fairness? Some semblance of fairness makes sense — and, needless to say, everyone’s bags should be screened, if only because it is possible to put a bomb in someone else’s luggage. But the TSA has a finite amount of attention: Every moment spent frisking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir subtracts from the scrutiny paid to more likely threats. Who could fail to understand this?

Granted, I haven’t had to endure the experience of being continually profiled. No doubt it would be frustrating. But if someone who looked vaguely like Ben Stiller were wanted for crimes against humanity, I would understand if I turned a few heads at the airport. However, if I were forced to wait in line behind a sham search of everyone else, I would surely resent this additional theft of my time.

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye… But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

There was, not surprisingly, a ton of visceral pushback to his piece. People called it racial profiling (which it was, in part), they argued that suicide bombers would just find a way around the system, and they pointed out that it’s not just brown people who are Muslim.

Maybe the most damning argument was that Harris’ screening policy would just give Muslims more reason to dislike and distrust the government, so it would do more harm than good.

Keep in mind that the 9/11 hijackers didn’t look like Osama bin Laden; they looked like travelers on a business trip. Harris would probably say that’s fine — go ahead and include young to middle-aged men like him in the screening process; just don’t bother with little girls and older women. But even then, we can’t specially screen all those people he wants to include. And if anyone can look like a Muslim, then we’re right back to square one. Ignoring old ladies and little girls and celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld — hardly the majority of travelers — isn’t going to keep us significantly safer. Also, if terrorists know people like Betty White won’t be screened, they’ll find a way to use them as vessels.

So there were a lot of holes in the argument. Even if the current method has problems, the Harris Method wouldn’t be any better (and it could possibly be worse).

To his credit, he posted on his website a lengthy debate on the topic with security expert Bruce Schneier… who basically ripped Harris’ theory to shreds.

Schneier argued that it would be far tougher to pinpoint “potential Muslims” than Harris thinks. Simplicity plus randomness — the system we currently use — is much more effective, he stated, adding that the costs of implementing the new (flawed) system also wouldn’t be worth it.

Again, that all happened years ago and I thought we had moved on.

But now that Harris and collaborator Maajid Nawaz are about to release a book on Islam — about what the faith teaches and what that means for the world — they’re discussing the topic in public, most recently at Harvard’s Kennedy Forum. You can see that video here.

Harris also did a solo interview on The Rubin Report. That’s when the topic of selective screening came up again:

Mostly, Harris repeated everything he said before. Whatever Schneier said still hasn’t made it into his thinking on the issue.

Harris posted a podcast yesterday trying to clear up all the misconceptions that have come up since that interview went live.

I listened to that podcast and I think I’ve avoided any of those misconceptions in this post.

Harris defends himself against accusations of racism by offering up another example of school violence. Because that violence usually occurs with homemade bombs or weapons, students who bring in items that could be construed as dangerous ought to be checked out. He’s appalled by what happened to Ahmed Mohamed, the boy whose homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb, but adds that the school wasn’t wrong to take precaution in this situation (regardless of the skin color or background of the student).

Unlike a lot of his critics, I’m willing to give Harris the benefit of the doubt and play along with his thought experiment. I don’t automatically have a problem with him floating his theory. But as someone who has read his essays and conversations, and also read what his critics have to say, the other side is just *way* more convincing on all this.

The Harris Method for airport security simply wouldn’t work in practice.

I understand we all get defensive when critics comes after us, and I know many of Harris’ critics have unfairly distorted his positions, but there have also been fair critics in the bunch, and they’re making more sense on this issue. I wish Harris would admit that.

At this point, after all he’s written about it, if he hasn’t convinced people to adopt his position, maybe the problem is his theory and not the critics.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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