As much as I enjoy Sam Harris' books and outlook on most topics, what he has recently written in his blog about profiling contains an egregious error in logic.
He starts out with a premise that TSA screening is impractical and unproductive, a point on which I agree.
Then he appears to forget all about his premise, that screening is useless, and launches into defending profiling.Much has been written about how insulting and depressing it is, more than a decade after the events of 9/11, to be met by “security theater” at our nation’s airports. The current system appears so inane that one hopes it really is a sham, concealing more-ingenious intrusions into our privacy. The spirit of political correctness hangs over the whole enterprise like the Angel of Death—indeed, more closely than death, or than the actual fear of terrorism. And political correctness requires that TSA employees direct the spotlight of their attention at random—or appear to do so—while making rote use of irrational procedures and dubious technology.
Nowhere does he address the fact that even if the TSA followed his suggestions and profiled everyone who appeared to be from the Middle-East (how does someone appear to be of a particular religion?) that still would have no impact on the quality of screening done by the TSA. How would profiling improve the screening methods currently in use? Why should we add another layer of worthlessness to an already worthless endeavor?Is there nothing we can do to stop this tyranny of fairness? Some semblance of fairness makes sense—and, needless to say, everyone’s bags should be screened, if only because it is possible to put a bomb in someone else’s luggage. But 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?
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.
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?
Harris has reached a conclusion, and a dubiously effective one at that, not supported by his original premise.