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

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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.

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