Sam Harris on profiling

For a recent blog post on profiling, CFI’s John Shook accused Sam Harris of being a “bigoted hate monger.” The reaction in the rest of the atheist internets has been almost all negative, though not quite as harsh. Let’s have a look at what Harris said:

Although I don’t think I look like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one, I do not mean to suggest that a person like me should be exempt from scrutiny. But other travelers fit the profile far less than I do. One glance at these innocents reveals that they are no more likely to be terrorists than walruses in disguise. I make it a point to notice such people while queuing for security at the airport, just to see what sort of treatment they receive at the hands of the TSA.

While leaving JFK last week, I found myself standing in line behind an elderly couple who couldn’t have been less threatening had they been already dead and boarding in their coffins. I would have bet my life that they were not waging jihad. Both appeared to be in their mid-eighties and infirm. The woman rode in a wheelchair attended by an airport employee as her husband struggled to comply with TSA regulations—removing various items from their luggage, arranging them in separate bins, and loading the bins and bags onto the conveyor belt bound for x-ray.

After much preparation, the couple proceeded toward the body scanner, only to encounter resistance. It seems that they had neglected to take off their shoes. A pair of TSA screeners stepped forward to prevent this dangerous breach of security—removing what appeared to be orthopedic footwear from both the woman in the wheelchair and the man now staggering at her side. This imposed obvious stress on two harmless and bewildered people and caused considerable delay for everyone in my line. I turned to see if anyone else was amazed by such a perversion of vigilance. The man behind me, who could have played the villain in a Bollywood film, looked unconcerned.


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 (after all, what would Adam Gadahn look like if he cleaned himself up?) But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

Needless to say, a devout Muslim should be free to show up at the airport dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives should be free to wear burqas. But if their goal is simply to travel safely and efficiently, wouldn’t they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves? At a minimum, wouldn’t they want a system that anti-profiles—applying the minimum of attention to people who obviously pose no threat?

As far as I can tell, Harris is right that would-be hijackers and bombers on American planes at this point in history are most likely to be Muslim. There are other ideologies that motivate terrorism, but that’s the main one we (in America, and many other countries) are facing right now.

The problem that I actually see with what Harris says is that “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim” isn’t a profile. Even the wheelchair-bound old woman in Harris’ example could conceivably be Muslim (perhaps of a liberal sect that doesn’t require women to wear headscarves.)

All the same, Harris’ point about anti-profiling seems right. Broad anti-profiles (like just “female”) would be a mistake because they’re too easy to exploit (terrorists respond by recruiting more women), but I doubt there’s much risk of terrorists specifically recruiting 80 year old wheelchair bound women to slip bombs past airport security.