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.
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…
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