My EPIC Takedown of Sam Harris’ “In Defense of Profiling”

image via dadavidov on flickr

Recently, Sam Harris caused another uproar over the interwebs for his defense — more like endorsement — of racial and religious profiling. When I read his article I find myself *emotionally* in agreement with the first parts of what he wrote, until I read the closing part. I had to read and re-read it to make sure that I haven’t missed any nuance on Sam’s part. But after reading it a few times, I’ve come to the conclusion that Sam Harris is either terribly misinformed and/or that his bigotry against Muslims is now rearing its ugly head for everyone to see. Here’s what he wrote (emphasis mine):

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?”

Now, if that doesn’t sound like racial and religious profiling to you, I suggest you read those paragraphs again and again.

My initial thought after reading Sam’s post is that, he went to the dark side on this one. Apparently, I’m not the only one among his thoughtful supporters who are now calling him out to reconsider his position. Here’s a very spot on critique from one of Sam’s fans.

“I am not sure how you’d recommend that the TSA go about identifying Muslims. Unless all Muslims are forced to don a star and crescent on their clothing, I am assuming that you are advocating for the profiling of people who appear to be from the Middle East and other Muslim countries, i.e. identifying them by their race. My missive is based on the assumption that you are advocating for racial profiling at airports. I hope that I am dead wrong on that, and if I am, I owe you a sincere apology.

“Religion, of course, does not determine a person’s race. You have unjustly been called a racist in the past due to your views on Islam. But in your call for profiling people who “could conceivably be Muslim,” aren’t you assuming that Islam should be viewed in terms of race and ethnicity? Is there any other way to distinguish people from other religions? As you say, the TSA might miss frisking a potential terrorist by spending more time on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But if we went with your recommendations, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber” who is a black man from Nigeria, would also slip through security while the TSA frisks a Pakistani family heading to Disney World for holiday. If the TSA was to use “Muslim names” instead of race and ethnicity, I doubt that your friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be happy to be subjected to excessive TSA inspection just because her name fits a certain profile.”

Here’s another thoughtful response to Sam Harris by one of his fans.

“This is the latest example of Sam Harris’s questionable suggestions about Islam. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt when I read The End of Faith (in which he does make some good arguments on the topic of why religion is incorrect) as some of his suggestions were written in a way that one could say they were a thought experiment, rather than a full endorsement. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt when I read that article from 2005, as the part about profiling was a sentence with no elaboration on it. I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue anymore. He is, plainly, advocating that discriminatory actions are justified in dealing with the problems in Islam, and that is something I must condemn.”

And yet again, here’s another thoughtful response to Sam Harris on profiling. (What can I say, the thoughtful takedowns just keep on coming!)

“I’m inspired to dredge up this history because Harris just blogged a defense of racial and religious profiling, a piece which joins his defense of torture and his defense of pre-emptive nuclear war as reasons no one should ever take Harris seriously on policy matters (his philosophical failings are another matter altogether).

“Harris’s defense of profiling doesn’t really advance anything new. There’s a lot of criticism of TSA screenings out there, and the apparent absurdity of watching grandmothers with walkers be groped by agents while folks in djellabas and turbans wander past is a standard part of such complaints. There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of TSA screenings (and I’ve made some of them here), but the randomness of screenings isn’t one of them.”


And to my surprise, I find myself in agreement with PZ Myers on his critique of Sam. Serendipitously, Myers quoted Bruce Schneier on profiling.

“Harris is right to complain about the superficial show of frisking down a subset of people passing through the security chokepoint — it’s a stupid way to prevent terrorism. It would be far more effective to catch them before they show up at the airport, on the basis of associations and activities, rather than their skin color or the shape of their nose; it would also be better to have more robust recognition of identity at the airport, in order to connect information about threatening behavior to the individual.

“But never mind me. Ask a security expert, Bruce Schneier, about profiling. He advocates behavioral profiling (are they acting hinky? Is there something unusual about their activities?) but rejects the stupidity of profiling by ancestry.”

And that is my main point of contention with Sam. I disagree with Sam not because I’m coming from it from a *politically correct* perspective. I’m coming from it from a pragmatic (i.e. ineffectiveness of racial profiling), as well as civil liberties, perspectives!

I’m familiar with Sam’s arguments on torture and pre-emptive war. I believe that he has made some nuanced arguments on those topics (even if I disagree with him). But I couldn’t see the nuance of his arguments on this one (if there’s any). His ADDENDUM didn’t add anything except of him being coy on the criticisms. On his addendum, Sam said (emphasis mine):

“Many readers found this blog post stunning for its lack of sensitivity. The article has been called “racist,” “dreadful,” “sickening,” “appalling,” “frighteningly ignorant,” etc. by (former) fans who profess to have loved everything I’ve written until this moment. I find this reaction difficult to understand. Of course, anyone who imagines that there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism might object to what I’ve written here, but I say far more offensive things about Islam in The End of Faith and in many of my essays and lectures.”

Um, duh?! Sam, it wasn’t that difficult to understand the strong reactions to your post. Any intellectual worth his salt would know that profiling is a very sensitive issue and that it would surely ruffle feathers on both sides of the debate. So I doubt that you “find this reaction difficult to understand.” It’s easy to understand. You may not agree with the reactions but an intelligent person like you should know that would illicit strong reactions from people. You’re a neuroscientist, a meditator, and a public intellectual fer Chrissakes, so you should know these things. So I don’t buy your addendum. You can post as many ADDENDA as you want on this one, but unless you recognize the fact that racial and religious profiling doesn’t work (or maybe make the case for racial profiling and cite examples and statistics that that kind of profiling really works), then all you have on this is his your own biased and uninformed opinion, to which I emphatically disagree with passion and compassion.

I’m waiting for a security expert to take on Sam Harris on a debate on this topic of profiling. And while I often sided with Harris on debates, I firmly believe that he will get bitch-slapped on this one. Bruce Schneier should slap him silly.

Having said that, I think it would’ve been more intellectually honest of Harris if he highlighted the *debate* on airport security profiling. And if he is confident of his opinion, then he could have offered a rebuttal to security experts who are in disagreement with his opinion rather than acted coy in his ADDENDUM. But that’s just my suggestion. Maybe it’s too much for Sam to do some more detailed research on security before putting himself out there like a sitting duck.

Bottom line: Sam Harris is wrong on this one. Sam will not stand a chance on a debate with a security expert like Bruce Schneier. Here’s what Schneier says on profiling:

“And, even worse, profiling creates two paths through security: one with less scrutiny and one with more. And once you do that, you invite the terrorists to take the path with less scrutiny. That is, a terrorist group can safely probe any profiling system and figure out how to beat the profile. And once they do, they’re going to get through airport security with the minimum level of screening every time.

“As counterintuitive as it may seem, we’re all more secure when we randomly select people for secondary screening — even if it means occasionally screening wheelchair-bound grandmothers and innocent looking children. And, as an added bonus, it doesn’t needlessly anger the ethnic groups we need on our side if we’re going to be more secure against terrorism.”


I’d also like to add that *behavioral* profiling is different from *racial and religious* profiling. If Sam had taken a more nuanced position on behavioral profiling then I might’ve taken his side. But no, like I said, he went to the dark side on this one.

My other point of contention with Sam Harris on his profiling piece is that he seems to have bought the “War on Terror” narrative (fed to us by the National Security State of America as if we’re all mushrooms in a dark room) hook-line-and-sinker. But that is another deep rabbit hole that I don’t need to dive into just to demonstrate the flaw in Sam’s arguments in support of racial/religious profiling. My arguments on the ineffectiveness of profiling from the perspectives of security experts are more than enough to demolish Sam’s misinformed position on this issue.

From a BIGGER perspective, maybe Sam DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE but to express his support of racial and religious profiling. And that I DON’T HAVE THE FREE WILL to resist calling out his intellectual inanity on the issue of security. So be it.

And finally, Sam Harris admitted that he’s a dead ringer for Ben Stiller — and he does remind me of the movie “Meet the Fockers” every time I see his profile photo. So I’ll channel Robert De Niro and put Sam on my crosshair on matters of national security and geopolitical policy. I’ll be watching you, Sam. I’ll be watching you…

Dear Sam, please wake the f**k up and witness the National Security State that we’re all swimming in right now. As a fellow meditator who’s been profoundly influenced by Buddhist thought and philosophy, I suggest to you that what needs to be done is to lessen the suffering of other people as much as we can, not add to it by endorsing racial and religious profiling. Sit on it for a while, be mindful of your breath and the entangled perceptions that give rise to the activity known as Sam Harris. Have a Zen moment. And then have the guts to reconsider your position on this issue.

P.S. This post is a consolidation of my thoughts generated on my EPIC — Sam Harris takedown on his position on profiling — THREAD on my Facebook page (here, here, and here).

UPDATE 05/25/2012: Sam Harris finally posted his long debate with Bruce Schneier.

Man, that was a loooooong debate. But I read everything. Yeah, I’m geeky like that. Here’s my analysis of the debate.

First of, for what it’s worth, I’d like to thank Sam Harris for engaging in this debate. I learned a lot of the nitty-gritty details of security from Bruce Schneier’s analysis. Bruce Schneier was very patient in laying out and explaining his case even if Sam continued to stick to his guns, often went off on a tangent, commited logical fallacies, and stubbornly conflated security matters in the presence of a security expert.

My bottom line: Sam Harris is *still* confused and *still* doesn’t get the memo about how security really works in the *real* world (e.g. cost-benefit) when applied to *real* situations on a *real* massive volume of diverse population. His *pre-occupation* with Muslim suicide bombers just became more apparent than it already was. This became evident by his often straying out of the debate just to insert non-relevant yet emotionally-charged examples of terrorism perpetrated by fundamentalist Muslims (notice how Bruce Schneier called him out on this with “not relevant” a couple of times.). And on top of it Sam keeps conflating *religious/racial* profiling with *behavioural* profiling (Bruce Schneier corrected him on this in a couple of occasions too). It’s really embarassing that Sam couldn’t let go of his no-win position (from a real-world security application, as well as from a moral and civil liberties perspective).

Although the debate went on and on… here’s the key exchange that illustrates how Sam Harris’ argument is deeply flawed.

SH: 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.

BS: Yes, you will, if someone whom you believe doesn’t meet the terrorist profile commits a terrorist act—and that list includes the “hundreds of western operatives, including from North America, of all ages, colors, genders, whatever” that Kip Hawley said U.S. intelligence is specifically following. If a plane is blown up by someone who doesn’t look like a Muslim jihadist, your entire profiling system failed. I’m making a simplicity argument. My proposed security system, which does not profile ethnically, has no such requirement. It is resilient to mistakes in my analysis.

And finally, I’m glad that Bruce Schneier brought up the National Security State perspective, even if only mildly.

“One final cost. Security isn’t the only thing we’re trying to optimize; there are other values at stake here. There’s a reason profiling is often against the law, and that’s because it is contrary to our country’s values. Sometimes we might have to set aside those values, but not for this.”

Sorry, Sam. you looked foolish when you posted your original article endorsing religious/racial profiling. And you look even *more* foolish by not conceding that you had a terrible lapse in judgement with your tunnel-vision, even after being schooled by a security expert who knows what he’s talking about.

Check mate, Sam. Here’s a lollipop. And meditate some more on cultivating positive emotions and compassion.

Comments (12)

  1. Why don’t they just do whatever it is the Israelis do that has prevented 100% of terrorist attacks, while still allowing *gasp* water bottles on planes?

    Oh wait…

    So much for “pragmatism.”

    Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 3:02 am #
  2. ~C4Chaos wrote::


    thanks for the link. from the article:

    “Many Israelis have no problems with this: Let the Muslims suffer for the sins of their brothers. But those of us who like to think of ourselves as liberal humanists find it too easy to ignore the sight of entire families having their luggage rummaged through in front of the entire terminal while we are waved through.”

    in any case, Israel is in a different situation than the U.S. so we have to take into account the size of the country and the *diversity* of people living and going in and out of the country, and its strategical location and geopolitical situation. racial profiling might work for Israel, but tell me honestly, do you really want to live in a country like that? are you implying that the U.S. ought to be Israel when it comes to matters of National Security?

    if you haven’t done so please read the *debate* on profiling I posted above. and let me know what you think.

    Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm #
  3. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    btw, Marshall, check this out too,

    “My experience at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv has led me to the conclusion that racial profiling is not effective. The major attacks at Ben Gurion Airport were carried out by Japanese terrorists in 1972 and Germans in the 1980s. [They] did not belong to any expected ethnic group. Richard Reid [known as the shoe bomber] did not fit a racial profile. Professionally as well as legally, I oppose the idea of racial profiling. So we are left with behavior, because behavior is probably the Achilles’ heel of the terrorist.”

    Behavior Pattern Recognition and Why Racial Profiling Doesn’t Work – CSO Online – Security and Risk

    Friday, May 4, 2012 at 12:35 am #
  4. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    ok. i just finished reading Sam’s latest reply to his seemingly indefensible position on profiling. see:

    first of, i’m glad that Sam took into consideration (almost) all the criticisms leveled at his original piece, and that he will be debating the issue of profiling with reknowned security expert Bruce Schneier. great! this is an EPIC WIN for my EPIC THREAD! looking forward to this. but right off the bat i would say that my lunch money would be on Schneier on this one. Sam’s neuroscience degree has little to no use for security issues. this is not an argument from authority, this is an argument for *expertise* and *experience* supported by *empirical* studies that racial and religious profiling doesn’t work. but I digress…

    ok, going back to Sam’s recent piece…

    i still see some back-pedalling on the part of Harris. especially on this part:

    “Imagine that you work for the TSA and are executing a hand search of a traveler’s bag. He is a young man in his twenties and seems nervous. You notice that he is carrying a hardcover copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You pick up the book and ask him if he likes it. He now appears even more nervous than before. You notice something odd about the book—the dust jacket doesn’t seem to fit. Your remove it and find a different book underneath. How do you feel about this traveler’s demeanor, and the likelihood of his being a terrorist, if the book is:”

    the above quote is an example of *behavioral* profiling, not racial or religious profiling (which starts with appearances rather than behavoirs and other observable and logistics data). how convenient of Sam to expound on this without mentioning that he made a blunder on his original piece by *not* mentioning *behavioural* profiling.

    Sam Harris is *conflating* profiling. he should be more specific with his language. in his original piece, he has no specificity. but rather than admit to the fact that he made that blunder (intentionally or not), he continues to be coy as if he made the case for *behavoiral* profiling in his original piece.

    nice try, Sam. but i don’t buy it. you won’t get away from me on this one that easily.

    HOWEVER, the most damning critique i have for Sam Harris which was never addressed in his latest piece is his BLIND SPOT for the National Security State! i doubt Harris will address this because he’s bought into the idea of the War on Terror, and continue to be blind to the after effects of 9/11 from a national security perspective. how convenient, Sam. how convenient.

    bottom line: in matters of security, i will take the side of experts over the opinion of a neuroscientist who has an axe to grind on Islam. but that’s just me! looking forward to Sam’s debate with Bruce Schneier. Sam could use a much-needed dose of bitch-slapping.

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm #
  5. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    P.S. I find it funny, if not tragic, how Sam entitled his latest piece, “On Knowing Your Enemy”. really, Sam? are you sure who the enemy really is? your BLIND SPOT is just eerily staggering! ~

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm #
  6. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    i’m still waiting for Sam Harris to post his response to Bruce Schneier’s rebuttal to Sam’s endorsement of (racial/religious) profiling. if this were a Mixed Martial Arts smackdown then Schneier delivered a very powerful One-Inch Punch that sent Harris crashing to the ground, face first. good thing Harris knows Jiu-jitsu. so maybe he’ll drag Schneier to his level so that he could apply his squid-like grappling techniques… i’ll wait and see.
    but i don’t see any hope of a bounce-back for Harris here because i view this as a Jedi match. Schneier has *the higher (moral) ground*. Harris just went to the dark side. and we all know how that fight ended.
    on a more serious note. i think that the most intellectually honest thing to do for Harris is to admit that he made a mistake by endorsing racial/religious profiling; apologize for it; then move one from there with a better understanding on security matters, and less paranoia over Muslims and Muslim-looking people (whatever this means).
    Schneier on Harris

    Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 9:57 am #
  7. Andrew wrote::

    Don’t appreciate all the hyperbole, but Schneier’s rebuttal completely missed the point. Read his first point… 1) the statistics are horrible for profiling terrorists. That is his whole point… but that just means the statistics for finding a terrorist among EVERYONE is going to be even LESS. That’s not an argument against profiling… it’s an argument against finding ANY terrorists.

    His second point was 2) Muslims don’t look like Arab’s. Sam already had addressed this when he spoke about how some non-Arab people would still need to be profiled and that profiling is more sophisticated that looking for Muslim-looking individuals, and to claim that is what he is advocating is disingenuous.

    Schneier’s third point was a rehashing of his second point… Muslims might not look like you’re typical Muslims. OK then… with this knowledge we can learn to profile more effectively… what it doesn’t support is we should search everyone.

    His last point is the PC argument. The fact that we run the risk of offending some Muslims. We are ALREADY offending thousands of people a day, is that the solution though… instead of offending Muslims we should offend everybody?

    Schneier in NO WAY defends the status quo over profiling. He didn’t even attempt to do this and instead said what we currently do is security theater… something that Sam as said as well. Schneier is NO WAY addresses the crux of Sam’s argument that it would be more efficient to profile than to check everyone and there grandmother because it can’t be done.

    You quoted PZ as saying “It would be far more effective to catch them before they show up at the airport, on the basis of associations and activities”… read that again… on the basis of associations and activities… so basically PROFILING (based on associations and activities). YES! Same mentions, as you may not have read it or understood it, that profiling goes far beyond just looking at people’s race. Police do it when they look at what you’re wearing, who you’re hanging with, how you speak and small behavioral quirks (eye movements, etc.). He is simply advocating for more intelligence when it comes to who we decide to pat down.

    You’re article could have done without all the hyperbole… references to jedi’s and Epic takedown and such. Cheers!

    Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 11:52 am #
  8. ~C4Chaos wrote::


    first of, thanks for dropping by on my blog and contributing to this discussion.

    you said: “Don’t appreciate all the hyperbole.”

    fair enough. anyone who reads my blog for a while will know that i do lot of hyperbole. that’s just my style. i also do *conversational intolerance*. i learned that from Sam Harris. so i prefer to add hyperbole and sarcasm to my “conversational intolerance” whenever i find it appropriate. but that’s just me. i’ll now go ahead and address your points.

    (1) “the statistics are horrible for profiling terrorists…”

    first thing’s first. aside from the fact that the statistics on profiling demonstrates that it’s not an effective security measure by itself, my contention with Sam Harris (and i would presume Bruce Schneier’s contention as well) is Sam’s explicit endorsement of *racial* and *religious* profiling (as he wrote in his original article). notice that in this blog post i have made a distinction between *religious*/*racial* profiling and *behavioral* profiling. Bruce Schneier recognizes the fact that *behavioral* profiling is one of the best security measures we’ve got. see this more nuanced article by Schneier: 
    my main issue with Sam was his *conflation* of profiling in his original article. notice that in his follow-up post “On Knowing Your Enemy”, Sam offered an example of *behavioral* profiling! that is an indication that Sam has conflated profiling in his original article (wheter intentonal or not). and rather than admit to the fact that he made the blunder by not being specific, he continues to act coy and defend his position *as if* he made the case for *behavioral* profiling on his original article (which he clearly did not).
    (2) “Muslims don’t look like Arabs…” see no. (1)

    (3) “Schneier’s third point was a rehasing of his second point…” see no. (1)

    (4) “his last point is the PC argument…”

    imho, i think it’s Sam’s ignorance of how security works which lead him to assume that the *randomized* security screening was due to “tyranny of fairness”. this is *not* the case. it has less to do with Political Correctness, but more to do with mathematics. see: “Strong profiling is not mathematically optimal for discovering rare malfeasors” –

    looking forward to Sam’s response. thanks again for stopping by.


    Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm #
  9. Steph Brady wrote::

    Actually Schneier’s response was fairly weak. In fairness, it was the response one would expect of a security engineer but not someone with real world counterterrorism experience. Basically Schneier completely misunderstood the human aspect of security & counterterrorism. Harris was clearly the much more on point and had a better understanding of the issue & the solution.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 9:03 am #
  10. Steph Brady wrote::

    Profiling is a legitimate technique that some people may find distasteful but it is insane to do indepth searches of people who have a low probability of being a risk. Schneier seems to dismiss the effectiveness of highly trained people doing profiling. Again, this is just because he doesnt understand this part of security and keeps thinking its a technical problem to be solved. Islamic Suicide bombers do have specific profiles but recognizing them is not trivial, thus the need for deep training.. See this report for profiles of islamic suicide bonbers..

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 9:18 am #
  11. Mike wrote::

    I recently read his blog post on guns. It wasn’t bad, but at the end he begins conflating black people with gun violence. Although he makes a point of statistics (which are true) when read it almost sounds as though he’s blaming black culture. I am convinced Sam Harris is pretty much an intellectual bigot, there are several, so it’s not hard for me to believe he is one.

    Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 8:43 am #
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    Friday, January 25, 2013 at 8:28 am #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks (3)

  1. […] FB page got deleted. Lately I’ve been highly critical of Sam ever since he posted on his blog his support for racial/religious profiling. So aside from my own critique I’ve been posting articles on Sam’s page with a common […]

  2. […] Originally Posted by Carl Jung Sam Harris is – as Noam Chomsky points out – a secular fundamentalist. And a dangerous one at that, who follows his "logic" to its ultimate conclusion – namely arguing for terrorism in order to safe guard secular values. His fundmentalism is merely not religious. Human dignity is a very fragile thing – and Sam Harris is one of its most dangerous and eloquent enemies. yeah, Chomsky did dish out on Harris. I've been waiting for a Chomsky v. Harris debate too Chomsky on Hitchens, Harris and Skinner – YouTube Chomsky on Hitchens, Harris and Skinner – YouTube i've also come to an opinion that one of Sam Harris's biggest blind spot is the National Security State. but I'm already digressing from the topic of this thread ~ My EPIC Takedown of Sam Harris’ “In Defense of Profiling” < ~C4Chaos […]

  3. […] […]