Sam Harris’ Indefensible Views on Racial Profiling

Sam Harris’ Indefensible Views on Racial Profiling September 16, 2015

As PZ brought to my attention, Sam Harris is still arguing for racially profiling airline passengers. His argument in the video is that security is a “zero-sum game”, that our screeners have limited time and resources, and so they should focus on the people whom we know are more likely to be terrorists, by which he means Islamist fundamentalists (he never considers any other kind of terrorism).

The fullest expression of Harris’ views is in a 2012 article on his blog, “In Defense of Profiling“, so that’s what I’ll respond to here:

Much has been written about how insulting and depressing it is, more than a decade after the events of 9/11, to be met by “security theater” at our nation’s airports. The current system appears so inane that one hopes it really is a sham, concealing more-ingenious intrusions into our privacy. The spirit of political correctness hangs over the whole enterprise like the Angel of Death — indeed, more closely than death, or than the actual fear of terrorism. And political correctness requires that TSA employees direct the spotlight of their attention at random — or appear to do so — while making rote use of irrational procedures and dubious technology.

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it… But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

Harris argues that airport security screeners should profile anyone who’s Muslim or anyone who “looks like” they could be Muslim, based on such characteristics as “ethnicity” or “nationality”. Right away, we see the problem: what does a Muslim look like?

There are over one and a half billion Muslims on the planet, and they include every conceivable race and ethnicity. Just in the Middle East, there are Muslims who are Arab, Egyptian, Iranian, and Turkish. There are Muslims from every part of Africa, from India, from Malaysia, from the Phillippines. There are ethnic Uyghur Muslims from western China and Chechen Muslims from southern Russia. There are Muslims who are black and Muslims who are white, Anglo-Saxon Americans. So, again, how can you tell who “looks like” a Muslim? It’s impossible to imagine what this could mean, unless it’s a form of crude racial stereotyping intended to cover every non-white person.

I was debating this on Twitter yesterday, and several of Harris’ defenders pointed to an addendum he wrote in which he insisted that “I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin” and acknowledges the existence of white Muslim jihadists, like Adam Gadahn or John Walker Lindh (there was also Richard Dart in the U.K. and Martin Couture-Rouleau in Canada). Harris states that, in fact, “I [would] include[] myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled”.

These people seem to think that caveat absolves Harris of accusations of racism, but instead it just muddies the water. Because if he didn’t mean “profile anyone with black or brown skin”, then what did he mean? What defines the group of people that he thinks should be singled out for additional security screening?

One bizarre suggestion is that Harris made this statement in full awareness of the diversity of Islam, and that he was saying, in effect, “we should profile everyone who looks like they might be Muslim, but Muslims don’t have any unique or distinctive appearance, so we should profile everyone”. One person made this exact argument to me:

The definition of “profile” makes this interpretation nonsensical. In context, it means building a description of who’s most likely to have criminal intent, so that you can focus your screening efforts on people who match that description. Harris himself insists on this – he justifies the necessity of profiling by saying that “the TSA has a finite amount of attention” and we need to deploy it where it’s most essential. But if your description is “anyone of any race or ethnicity”, then your description is meaningless and talk of using it for “profiling” is a contradiction in terms.

I can see only two possibilities: either Harris’ statement was based on racial stereotyping, or it was so overbroad as to be meaningless. And based on the Gricean cooperative principle of conversation, I think it’s safe to assume it isn’t the latter. People generally don’t make vacuously self-negating statements such as “we should profile people who look like they might be Muslim, by which I mean all people everywhere”. Even if Harris throws out the idea of screening white men like himself as a token concession, it seems clear that he’s really urging us to crack down harder on people with beards and dark skin.

And, just as an aside, Harris’ proposal makes zero sense even from a security standpoint. His argument is that some people are just obviously not dangerous – in the video, he suggests that there are people “who, at a glance, you can rule out as non-jihadists”, such as “80-year-old women from Okinawa” or “little girls from Norway”.

But, of course, if you announce that, you’ve just told terrorists what they have to do to smuggle a bomb through security! They could, for example, slip it into someone else’s bag (a possibility Harris alludes to himself). They could focus on recruiting someone who doesn’t match security’s expectations (some terrorist groups have used women and even children as suicide bombers, probably for this very reason). Or, stepping just slightly into the absurd, they can disguise someone to look like a member of a deemed-innocuous group. It may be unlikely to work, but it only has to work once.

In his post, Harris incomprehensibly suggests that if an innocent Muslim shows up at the airport “dressed like Osama bin Laden”, he should expect additional scrutiny and be happy to receive it, knowing it’s part of a system that keeps everyone safe. This just goes to show how farcical his profiling idea really is. Terrorists aren’t going to show up conveniently dressed like Osama bin Laden! Harris seems not to realize that we’re dealing with foes who can learn what our tactics are and adapt to beat them. All he’s succeeded in doing is creating is a system that will punish and degrade innocent people for dressing as they’re used to, while overlooking any terrorist who has the minimal intelligence to change his clothes. As Bruce Schneier puts it in his excellent reply to Harris:

At airports, though, there is an enormous social and political cost to the millions of false alarms. Beyond the societal harms of deliberately harassing a minority group, singling out Muslims alienates the very people who are in the best position to discover and alert authorities about Muslim plots before the terrorists even get to the airport. This alone is reason enough not to profile.

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