I had mixed feelings about Sam Harris’ endorsement of profiling at the airport. The rest of the blogosphere reaction was more uniformly negative, and when security expert Bruce Schneier wrote a rebuttal to Harris (which Harris posted on his own site), this was taken as a decisive refutation of Harris. But I think people have missed the most interesting part of Schneier’s response, which is at the end:
I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA manhandles four-year old girls, children with cerebral palsy, pretty women, theelderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.
The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost.
In other words, Harris is right to think we shouldn’t be putting old women in wheelchairs through secondary screening–Schneier just ends up going further and saying we shouldn’t be putting anyone through secondary screening. I strongly suspect Schneier is right about that, and if he is I’d like to see that message broadcast. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem interested in the question of whether or the various “security” procedures that have sprung up after Sept. 11th do any good. They just want to make sure we aren’t doing the un-PC thing of “profiling.”
It’s worth pointing out, for example, that Schneier’s first point stops making sense if you think we should go on doing secondary screenings at random. Once you commit to secondary screenings, you’re screening an awful lot of non-terrorists regardless of whether you profile.