I have to return to Same Harris’ defense of profiling, because he’s added an addendum, and although it tells us more about why Harris is focused on this issue, it doesn’t actually address my objections, and thinking about it, it does expose some deep differences between me and Harris.
The problem is this assertion:
We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.
Let me change that around a bit, not just to make a point for me, but also to try and move the debate away from race.
We should profile Republicans, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Republican, and we should be honest about it.
If you step back and look at the world today, the major source of death and strife and terrorism isn’t Islam, it’s America — the country with hands down the largest arsenal and the will to use it. A few cunning Islamic terrorists did manage to murder several thousand Americans in a stunning attack, it is true; but in retaliation, we killed a hundred thousand or more Iraqis (a nation not involved in that attack!) and have wrecked two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to wreak similar havoc on a third, Iran. We have drones flying over Afghanistan right now, ready to blow up any small group of people seen gathering in public. You cannot call those drones anything but state-sponsored terrorism.
Of all the people lined up behind the security barrier at the airport, it’s those American voters who are currently the most dangerous. The only reasonable objection to my claim that we should profile Republicans is that everyone who voted for the Democrat Obama is also culpable.
I will agree with Harris, though, that frisking little old Republican ladies at the checkpoint is ridiculous, because suicidal terrorism isn’t their game — that’s the desperate tactic of the otherwise powerless, and as he points out, it’s almost entirely perpetrated by Muslims.
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.
In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the year 2012, 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.
This is true. Republicans would never make the self-sacrifice of smuggling explosives on a plane to kill themselves and the other passengers — it’s not their thing. So if we’re focused on just stopping this one strategy of disrupting our economy and politics, I agree that after the fact we’re likely to discover that the perpetrator was a Muslim. It’s also true that some vocal Muslims are likely to express credible death threats against individuals — like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie — using Islam as a justification, and those people certainly have good cause to fear Islam.
But that does not make “Muslim” a useful criterion for preventing terror attacks. The majority of Muslims are just as harmless as the elderly woman featured in Harris’ article (probably more harmless: they aren’t voting Republican). When you single out the 30 year old traveling Pakistani engineer with a family and a career for specially invasive inspection, you are committing just as much of an outrage as when you pull out the 70 year old white grandma.
When I speak of profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest. It is the charm of political correctness that it blends these sins against reasonableness so seamlessly. We are paying a very high price for this obscurantism—and the price could grow much higher in an instant. We have limited resources, and every moment spent searching a woman like the one pictured above, or the children seen in the linked videos, is a moment in which someone or something else goes unobserved.
This logic simply doesn’t work. It’s not political correctness: it’s basic numeracy. Since terrorists are extremely rare in airports, you could also argue that the whole strategy of randomly frisking individuals is a waste of limited resources: since the probability of any of those people, either Muslim or non-Muslim, being a terrorist is so ridiculously low, each search is a waste of time that could allow the real problem people to go unobserved. The numbers just don’t work. I agree with Harris that special screening for white-haired old ladies is absurd, but it’s also absurd for brown-skinned young men with an accent.
Another reason it’s ridiculous: we keep fighting the last terrorist. They aren’t going to keep doing the same thing, over and over; 9/11 was a one-shot event, airlines have made other changes in their protocols that will prevent that. Yet TSA keeps following one step behind. Some guy smuggles explosives aboard in the soles of his shoes, so now we have to take off our shoes for inspection before boarding; it doesn’t matter that the shoe bomb didn’t work. I thoroughly sympathize with frustration at the mindless, pointless security theater we go through all the time. I don’t think it helps us at all, though, to turn it into an opportunity to selectively punish people who “look Muslim”. That’s theater that adds a fresh new layer of pointless othering and tribalism to the pointless pretense of security.
“Political correctness” is a phrase too often used to justify racism and oppression; you can’t just defuse criticisms of poor policies of discrimination by claiming political correctness. It’s really about recognizing the fact that religious affiliation is not a good indicator of a propensity for violence.
Step into any mosque, church, or synagogue, and what you’ll find is a congregation of people who are typically more concerned with getting along with their neighbors than in blowing stuff up. Sure, you’ll find a scattering of people who want do destroy Great Satan America, or shoot abortion doctors, or overthrow ZOG, but they’re a minority, and they also tend to segregate themselves off to more reactionary cells in more radical religious groups. I think it’s a huge mistake for atheists to repeat this claim that religion makes you fly planes into buildings; it’s simply not true, and the overwhelming majority of religious people who gather on holy days to pray are looking at us like we’re insane and deluded for suggesting it. That isn’t “political correctness”, that’s truth, and that’s what the people of reason should be focused on. Not damning the whole for the crimes of a few. Not equating Muslim with terrorist.
I really think the atheist movement ought to be focusing instead on one general truth: almost all of the people in that mosque, church, or synagogue believe in stupid ideas. They aren’t evil, they’re wrong, and their credulous beliefs make them more gullible and susceptible to exploitation. I’m not in the least bit interested in punishing the religious for their beliefs in any way; they’re victims of bad tradition and poor education, and if you want to end religious terrorism the best strategy isn’t to make bodies bounce in the rubble or isolate and suppress, but to educate, educate, educate. Open up economic opportunities, increase the security of people’s lives (not just privileged wealthy white people’s lives, but everyone’s), and teach people how to think and learn.
At the end of his addendum, Harris offers to open up his blog to an expert on airline security to discuss the topic. The good news is that he’s willing to learn: he’s now promising to publish something from Bruce Schneier, which I find very encouraging.