Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier’s Debate on Profiling Muslims at the Airport

What do you do when you’re sitting in an airport waiting for your delayed flight?

Read all 13,000+ words of the ongoing debate on the efficacy of profiling Muslims at airport security checkpoints between Sam Harris (We’d be crazy not to profile them!) and Bruce Schneier (You have no idea what you’re talking about).

In a nutshell, Harris argues that the suicidal terrorists who want to use airplanes to kill innocent people are obviously Muslims and we’d be foolish not to throw more security resources in their direction — and less security in the way of, say, old ladies (think Betty White).

Schneier just doesn’t think that’s possible to pull off for a variety of reasons. It adds much more complexity into the system to pinpoint “potential Muslims” (he argues that the combination of simplicity + randomness is better than what Harris proposes), there’s no real good way of doing that even if we wanted to, and the costs of implementing the (flawed) system just wouldn’t be worth it.

Some highlights:

Schneier: Honestly, I don’t care about the political correctness of this. Profiling is bad security. I understand that it intuitively seems obvious to you, and that your gut tells you it’s better, but it’s not. And I am going to continue to explain why.

Harris: The whole purpose of my previous articles was to suggest that we should have well-trained screeners who can use their discretion to spend less time focusing on the least threatening people — and that focusing on them purely for the sake of appearing fair could well get many people killed. I wrote the articles I would want to have written in the event that we have another terrorist incident involving a jihadist on an airplane. Of course, if a plane gets blown up by someone who looked and acted like Betty White, I will issue a public apology.

Harris: Do you think positive incentives would have the same effect? What if screeners won a million dollars every time they caught a real terrorist? I’m guessing they would focus on more likely suspects.

Schneier: Rewards can be a great motivational tool, but you have to be careful what you motivate. Remember, we don’t want screeners to focus on what they believe the threat is. We want them to focus on the actual threat.

Harris: Again, I would argue that a screener’s beliefs and reality can converge more than you allow.

Much like the previous installments of this series, it’s a thought-provoking conversation. As I said before, I’m less interested in who’s right and who’s wrong — it’s just really fascinating to read two intelligent people debate something so politically incorrect.

Having read the whole piece, Schneier is more convincing when it comes to the matter at hand. Even if Harris is right that Muslims deserve more selective screening at airports, Schneier makes the case that profiling would be the wrong way to go about fixing that. It may be ethically wrong, but (more to the point here) it just doesn’t work in practice.

If you don’t have time to read it all now, Instapaper the whole thing and read it later.

There’s something to be said for a debate that’s not done in front of a crowd, where emotions and sentiment can get the best of the audience and the debaters end up playing to the audience instead of to each other. Here, both sides are laid out — very fairly, I believe, to Harris’ credit — and we can decide for ourselves which side makes a better case.

Side note: At one point, Harris argues that we “profile” people all the time when making “threat assessments” and it doesn’t make us sexist or racist to do so. For example, even though most men are not rapists, we don’t say women are sexist for being cautious around male strangers. They’re just trying to protect themselves.

I doubt this was intentional, but this is how Harris demonstrates the point:

… imagine hearing the following story from your wife or daughter:

“I did something today that I’m very ashamed of. I was on an elevator alone, and a man got on who made me uncomfortable…”

Of all the examples he could have used…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • ErickaMJohnson

    You can’t trade in the liberty of American citizens in exchange for safety, even if it were effective. The moment you throw away the value of our Constitution, being an American doesn’t mean all that much.

    • Tom_Nightingale

      Being alive and safe means more to me than being “free” or having liberty.  I can be totally a slave of the state, and if it prevents me from suffering or being harmed that’s great.  I of course want more out of the country who’s laws I am under, but if let’s say another country is attacking America and the Constitution is revoked to get greater power under one person or something like that, would you start a civil war against America too while our now dictator is dealing with an outside threat?

      This gives me an idea, we are living in, historically, the most peaceful time ever.  The number of people who have died in wars, civil wars, and terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades.  It seems to me people are far more biased than ever to look for threats from within their own communities (enforcing social/civil rights) rather than looking outside our communites at groups that are still rivaling for power?  I fear that Americans have has had such peace we hardly acknowledge that a lot of the world is still at war, and it doesn’t take a nation to inflict major damage on another nation (like terrorists perpetrating 9/11)

      • ErickaMJohnson

        You’re welcome to give up your liberty for an increased sense of security but you, and the government, don’t have the right to take away another American citizen’s liberty without just cause.

        It seems to me people are far more biased than ever to look for threats from within their own communities (enforcing social/civil rights) rather than looking outside our communites at groups that are still rivaling for power?

        I’m not sure what your point is here. Are you trying to say this is your justification for profiling?

        • Tom_Nightingale

          I was hoping you would acknowledge that the foreign threat could very well take away your liberties on it’s own by removing America’s governance.

          I’m not sure what your point is here. Are you trying to say this is your justification for profiling?

          I am positing that many Americans are blind to many external threats, because for most of their lives there’s been nothing and no one to fear.  This has been great in some respects as its shifted much focus to social and cultural issues that need attention, but bad in that there are still threats to our security that we are not done with.  These are threats that could cause a lot of suffering, more so than what Sam Harris is proposing doing in airports as a preventative measure.

          Most American’s don’t know serious suffering, and it seems like they don’t believe something terrible could happen to us since it really doesn’t very often.  It’s sort of a side effect of peace, we become complacent.

          Now if I were to deal with this whole terrorism issue as President, I’d immediately stop our aggressive foreign military actions so as to give people in places like Iraq and Afghanistan less reason to hate us.  That would stop a lot of people from trying to hurt Americans…

          • ErickaMJohnson

             I’m talking about the liberty of American citizens. American citizens couldn’t be considered external threats.

            And removing ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t do much to lessen their hate of us. If you remember, most of the 9/11 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, were educated and decently well off. They were motivated by religious hate.

    • Pseudonym

      Schneier has pointed out in the past that the right of “security” does appear in the Bill of Rights. It’s in the fourth amendment:

      The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers,
      and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
      violated [...]

      If anyone thinks that you can choose either privacy or security, point them here. Privacy is security.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    Harris is dead wrong on this one. It’s a shame to see him taking this position.

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    It’s nice to see Sam debating somebody rational about this who doesn’t throw epithets at him for trying to have a serious conversation about a very serious topic. I think the calls of “racist” and “fascist” aimed at Sam Harris were completely uncalled for. I’ve said myself on this blog that I may not completely agree with him on this point, and I don’t even actually see how it could be practically done this way, but that I’m glad he’s raising the issue. And, as I see it, it’s not just an issue about security, but an issue about many other things, such as the discussion about Islam, political Islam, political correctness, and our own “community” of atheists.

    • JN

      The problem is that Sam isn’t contributing anything to these discussions. He’s a talking head. Rather than actually bother doing enough research to form qualified opinions, which is what Schneier and actual experts in these fields have done, he thinks he can circumvent that with witty one-liners and “common sense.”

      It’s the same list of talking points with Sam every time. No Tibetan suicide bombers, no Palestinian suicide bombers, blame the scripture, blah blah blah. His arguments are built are on reductive reasoning and superficial understandings of complex issues. When challenged, he just changes the subject or repeats himself in a clever way.

      It works for him in a lot of situations, but not here. Note how when Schneier tossed out his red herring about whether or not Islam is to blame, he didn’t know what to do and basically dragged his feet through the rest of the exchange. Also note his idiotic comparison between niqabis and neo nazis. Utter nonsense.

      Simply put, he’s engaging in posturing and empty rhetoric. I will give him credit for publishing such a one-sided exchange – but if he is the rational mind he claims to be, he needs to acknowledge that Schneier shot his argument regarding the efficacy of profiling to pieces.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I kept looking for Sam to concede or change anything.  And to be fair, Bruce didn’t either.  But Bruce has been working on this for over a decade.

      • Pseudonym

        The problem is that Sam isn’t contributing anything to these discussions.

        Actually, I think he’s being a brilliant foil. He’s a perfect example of someone who is measurably fairly intelligent and therefore thinks his gut feelings and emotions are worth something despite a complete lack of expertise.

        He’s contributing an important object lesson, and we should all learn from it.

      • JN

        Also, to clarify – I meant to say no Palestinian CHRISTIAN suicide bombers. This is a point that Sam repeatedly tries to drive home like it’s some kind of trump card proving that Muslims are more violent, even though it was pretty handily addressed by Scott Atran in 2006. Sam obviously wasn’t listening.

        • Mikecwc

          Actually, I thought Sam won that exchange with Scott Atran. Please don’t tell me Palestinian Christians are just as likely as Palestinian Muslims to engage in a suicide attack just because there has been a rare examples of the former. 

  • Joe

    Sam Harris just keeps getting it wrong on this, because he keeps using his intuition and not his rationality.

    Is a woman feeling threatened by a random guy on the elevator, profiling? Yes.
    Is it sexist? yes. Is it something she should ignore? no.
    Is feeling threatened by a random stranger, say a young black man in a hoodie, profiling? Yes. Is it prejudiced? yes. Should you ignore your gut? no. Should you follow and shoot the man? no.

    Our brains generalize, and this is especially true with regards to ‘on the spot’ threat management. But there is a huge difference between that quick short term assessement, which is always going to be rife with false positives, and advocating systemic racism/sexism on the basis of that paranoia.

    Schneier is right. He has the facts. Harris is just trying to justify his own bigotry. We are all prejudiced to one degree or another. It’s how we deal with it that counts. Harris is being a huge bigot and ignoring the facts.

    • Tom_Nightingale

      I think Sam is so in favor of using intuition because that’s the best tool we have at the moment to detirmine threats.  Sad?  Yes.  But the consequences of  eliminating intuition from airport security are too high, and the drawbacks not big enough.  I think preventing 1 terror attack outweighs thousands of people’s insulted feelings or violations of personal space.  The point we are at is someone has to suffer, is it suffering discomfort or suffering physical pain and severe emotional trauma that an attack like 9/11 brought?

      • jdm8

        You considered the circumstances of a false positive, a real positive, but what about a false negative?  What if intuition fails and they let a bomber through?

        You say thousands inconvenienced, but in reality, millions are inconvenienced, at the cost of many, many man-lifetimes stuck in security line.Besides, TSA screeners are not high on the totem pole, and the pay isn’t enough to attract highly qualified personell.  Those that have a good intuition would likely have some other job.Also, extremist muslims aren’t the only people that have an axe to grind against the US.  Note Tim McVeigh and Andrew Stack.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Is there any cost too high to prevent a single terrorist attack?  How many person-hours and dollars?  It’s always about cost vs. benefit, otherwise we would just drug all passengers for the duration of the flight.

        And Schneier’s point is that intuition isn’t the only tool, it’s actually a very bad tool.

      • Pseudonym

        I think Sam is so in favor of using intuition because that’s the best tool we have at the moment to detirmine threats.

        No, it isn’t. Bruce Schneier has pointed out repeatedly that not a single terrorist, not a single physical object which is part of a terrorist attack, has been caught by the TSA.

        Every potential terrorist attack in the last 10 years that has been thwarted is the result of intelligence and careful detective work. That is the best tool we have to determine threats.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Most dangerous people at the airport:

    1) Young Arab men
    2) Men
    3) Everyone else

    Whatever resources you have should be dispensed according to this ranking

    This makes me a racist and a sexist to many.  I feel helpless in arguing here that this has more to do with the geographic lottery of where you got born, but I am confident about men being a greater threat than women and children.  

    • Deepak Shetty

       Sigh. Suppose you are a terrorist. Suppose TSA has implemented something like what you propose. What would you do?

      • Tom_Nightingale

        I need more stipulations.  This is a little vague, but I’ll play.  What were you hoping I’d say?

        • Deepak Shetty

           I was hoping you’d realize how ineffective your suggestions are. If I know you are targeting Arab males or males I’d just use a female suicide bomber (for e.g. The ex prime minister of India – Rajiv Gandhi , was murdered by a female suicide bomber). 

    • jdm8

      Muslims aren’t only made of arab people, there are plenty of black muslims, and  Iranians are caucasian.  Women and children have been used as mules for bombs.  Focusing only on one narrow group of people still means missing viable suspects that can do a lot of damage.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      You find an Asian woman sympathetic to your cause.  e.g. 
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beslan_school_hostage_crisis

  • http://www.facebook.com/warmlittlepond Colin Wright

    I just read the whole exchange. Sam got steamrolled. 

  • Makethemostoflife

    I am blow away by the amount of animosity to towards Sam Harris over this topic.  After reading the article I thought that he would have done a good job of putting the people complaining about him in their place, but clearly not.  I was very disappointed with the case Schneier made, he largely just makes arguments from authority.

    It’s a further shame that people hate Harris for even raising and pushing a debate on this topic.  I have been thoroughly thought provoked from all these articles, and would love to see more controversial topics hammered out in this format.

    Good Job Sam


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