Monday, April 30, 2012

Sam Harris...I Am Disappoint (UPDATED)

Sam Harris’s recent essay entitled In Defense of Profiling is a call to expand the tactic of profiling, specifically of Muslims at airports. He opens the first portion of his essay with a valid criticism of the current methodologies of the TSA and how inept, illogical and useless they are. I would also add dehumanizing, ineffective and another step towards a police state. There is nothing about this portion of his essay that I find incorrect, illogical or distasteful. He hits the nail on the head and could have gone further in showing how the TSA is a worthless government agency not because of their mission, but due to the haphazard and misplaced strategy and resources they expend. Unfortunately, everything that follows is where Mr. Harris lost me. In his next few paragraphs Harris sets up his thesis with seemingly valid points. He states:

“…the TSA has a finite amount of attention: Every moment spent frisking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir subtracts from the scrutiny paid to more likely threats. Who could fail to understand this?”

Ok. I may think that Mormonism is silly, but I have to agree that the probabilities are low that the Tabernacle Choir is going to stand up on a plane, yell “To Kolob!” as they blow up their magic underpants. I hate to say it, but this example and the “who could fail to understand this” plea seems like a sleight of hand on Harris’ part. He provides a clearly ridiculous example before his next in order to soften up the reader. 

"Imagine how fatuous it would be to fight a war against the IRA and yet refuse to profile the Irish? And yet this is how we seem to be fighting our war against Islamic terrorism.”

This example seems reasonable (more than the Mormon one) at first glance, but then if you consider this for a moment you see it does not make sense. In this scenario, we end up with the same problem we started with. A large group of people that are potential terrorists simply because of their birthright is still a large group and the TSA would still have to use the same tired and ineffective methods.  How do you weed that down? In this hypothetical situation, are we to screen James O’Donnell flying in from Belfast on a business trip to Boston? Well, he could be IRA. Maybe his mission is to raise money for the IRA from Irish Americans! Maybe…maybe…maybe. This seems stupid. It’s still a shot in the dark and you couldn’t possibly profile all the Irish coming through Belfast International, Dublin, Heathrow, JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark. And those are just the airports they are most likely to use.  

Then Harris drops his thesis.

“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”

 So how does one profile Muslims without stepping precariously close to, if not crossing the line, of racial and discriminatory profiling? Are we going to profile white males from the Balkans? Will we profile black men from anywhere that doesn’t seem American? What about women? Are we profiling Muslim women now too? Burqa’s or hijab? Are we profiling anyone that “looks” Arab? What if she is a Lebanese Christian? The problem with this is that no matter the intent that less people be profiled (in order to not inconvenience American’s precious time) by targeting a group, it will be discriminatory. Also, it will inevitably drift back into what we have now. The pool of “suspects” is just too large while the actual criminals are such an infinitesimal fraction of that population that it seems stupid to profile at all.

This is not political correctness speaking. I gave that up. My opinion on this matter is solely from the point of view of the effectiveness of anti-terrorism strategies and the preservation of civil liberties; for everyone. Profiling may be logical in some sense, but it is probably racist depending on the target group and it is always discriminatory. Additionally, if atheists are going to have a claim on rationalism; we cannot use the line that people, by and large, are merely born into their religion and then not recognize that fact in other situations. People are born into Islam. You can make the argument that Islam primes people for violence all you want, but the fact of the matter is the number of Jihadist Muslims is not only low, but they are extraordinary low. The incidence of terroristic actions in the name of Islam is pitifully low if you consider the world population of Muslims. The numbers of terrorists is nowhere near the numbers that some would have you believe or that can be inferred from TSA resources. If it were then we would have vastly different and much more severe problems. This is not the case. This is why profiling, from a tactical point of view, is still worthless. It will always be looking for a needle in a haystack and the people looking for that needle are expensive.

We should be relying on detective work, non-intrusive technology and intelligence, not to mention halting activities that would seem to confirm the worst about American imperialism and fear of the “other.” Has TSA profiling stopped a single attempted act of terrorism? Not one known incident. As far as I can recall, all publicized cases where a terrorist was thwarted were due to inter-agency detective work and not a TSA agent pulling someone out of a line in an airport.

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
                                                                                                           --Thomas Paine

UPDATE: Sam Harris responded to his critics over his Defense of Profiling article with an addendum to his original post (same link as above) on May 1st. First, let me say that I do not think that Harris is a racist or ignorant or anything of the negative things he listed in his response. I was not and am not offended. Also, I am not a “former fan” just because I disagreed with him (not that he would care! Steve who, from Left what?).  Honestly I think he over thought his position to a logical extreme. Logical extremes can and do exist. They might even be successful but they must be balanced by other considerations; in this case civil liberties and non-discrimination.

In his response, Harris stated that “suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon. If you grant this, it follows that applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time.”

Again that may be true, but suicidal terrorism is a relatively low occurrence in the 1.6 billion strong Muslim population (~20% of world). So we are to turn a suspicious eye to all Muslims? My problem with this premise, aside from infringing rights, is that it is unreasonable!

Further, Harris takes the easy way out and doesn’t actually defend his article. He just blames it on silly political correctness. That may be some people’s reasoning for rejecting his premise, but I would be hard pressed to think that many of the atheists that rejected his premise really fall into the PC trap especially in regards to Islam. Sorry Sam, it is not always effective to punt.   

Harris responds with two counter-points for his critics. First, regarding racism he was not suggesting that only dark-skinned “Muslim-y” looking people be profiled. Ok, fine fair enough. I am sure many people thought that is what you meant when some people’s PC meter kicked in. I didn’t think that. I brought up the factor of race/outward appearance just as an example of how do you implement profiling of a certain type of person without relying on appearance and without being discriminatory? I’m honestly unsure how that would occur.  Second, Harris states that there is no difference between his defense of profiling and other preventative measures to thwart terrorism. Sam gets snippy with the end of this second point. He states:

“And if we can catch terrorists before they reach the airport, I am all for it. But the methods we use to do this tend to be even more focused and invasive (and, therefore, offensive) than profiling done by the TSA. Many readers who were horrified by my article seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with “gathering intelligence.” One wonders just how they think that is done.”

We don’t really have to wonder. If done correctly there is no discord between preservation of civil liberties and effective intelligence and investigative work. These methods are a targeted focus of law enforcement’s attention. Not a broad swath such as profiling.

All in all I still like Harris, but this whole thing bothers me just because of his reaction to it. We are all human and no one likes being called out, but he put it out there. I don’t think he adequately defended his point. I still have the same overarching question about profiling. Has it ever worked?


Andy said...

I'm all for the tyranny of fairness. It sucks going through an airport, but it really is a first world kinda problem; I've got bigger fish to fry, thank you very much.

Glenn Caine said...

I share your opinion/interpretation on this one all around. But I'm particularly happy to see you point out that you haven't abandoned Harris for one bad idea. One of my biggest criticisms of fellow atheists/skeptics/etc, is how quick they attack and abandon people for one poorly thought opinion, a la the Dawkins/Watson elevator debacle. No one's perfect, and one bad idea does not negate a lifetime of good ones.

Steve said...

Thanks Glenn. I can't stand that cannibalistic tendency among atheists as well. As someone who writes publicly, however limited my audience may be, I would say that I stand by everything I have written; but I am sure I am wrong about something somewhere. It's just a fact. When I read some of my early posts (when I wasn't sure what I was doing) I see problems with my prose, logic, a potential fallacy, etc. It just makes me write more to try and hash it all out.

It is disappointing to see people so easily throw someone else under the bus for a bad idea or a poorly thought out statement. It happens to everyone!

Sweet-Sour Grim Reaper said...

Disappointing!!! Don't want to judge him too fast, but (just like to mention) I find Right Wing atheists to be more dangerous than genuine conservatism. (again with the generalizations... But... BUT!!!) usually with a fanatical almost religious Darwinism a la Enron, spitting hate/supremacisms and words like 'cesspools' 'genepools' etc obsessing with natural selection and competition.

Steve Barry said...

Thanks for the comment SSGR although I think it is completely wrong.

What is a 'right wing atheist' and how is Sam Harris an example of that?

Your comment "fanatical almost religious Darwinism a la Enron," is nonsensical. Advocating for science and natural selection against the forces of religion, superstition, and creationism is not fanatical and never comes close to becoming religious. That is an equivocation.

I have no idea what Enron has to do with this topic.

Who exactly is "spitting hate/supremacisms and words like 'cesspools' 'genepools'?" I have never heard Harris or any other atheist say this about people. Maybe about some beliefs in the case of 'cesspools, but that is hardly the same thing as saying a person or group is a cesspool.

Again, not sure who or what you are talking about in regards to genepools, and "obsessing with natural selection and competition". Clearly cite what you are talking about.

There are valid criticisms of some atheists (such as my criticism of Harris here), but the majority of these criticisms are unhinged attacks and claims of racism and militancy.