Friday, June 01, 2012

The Full Dialog on Profiling

Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier went back and forth on the issue of profiling. First they published a few articles on Harris's website, then they took it to email and published the full, final dialog. At 13000+ words, it's a novella. I responded to the first piece by Harris, but not Schneier's response, nor Harris's response to that. Now I'm going to do so. The whole thing's worth a read, but I'll provide very short summaries.

Harris's First Piece: In Defense of Profiling
Summary: Modern security screenings at airports are ridiculous. An infirm, elderly couple shouldn't go through an invasive search while a guy who could "play a Bollywood villain" lounges innocuously behind me. We should only screen people who are Muslims. Or look like Muslims. Or look like they could be Muslims.

My response: Dude, what the fuck. That wouldn't work because terrorists aren't stupid. As soon as you start focusing on a certain kind of target, they'll start planting bombs on other people. Also, it would really, really piss people off. Long story short, it would make us less safe by making more people want to hurt us and make it easier for them to do so.

Harris's Second Piece: On Knowing Your Enemy
Summary: This one isn't so amenable to summary because it's a broad response to the many, many responses that he got. So, I'm not going to summarize and respond succinctly and separately, but together and at length. A big part of it is trying to defend himself from charges of racism.

Unfortunately, Harris pulls all of those responses together and posits them as a representative whole. For example, in his list of eight points people raised, number two is that there's no link between Islam and suicide terrorism. Number four is that there's no way to "look Muslim", because the religion spans most of the continents and racial groups, from whites, to Semites, to blacks, to Asians. Number six is that racial profiling would let Muslim terrorists game the system and recruit people outside the profile. He then turns around and points out that four conflicts with number six, because if there's no way to "look Muslim", Muslim profiling wouldn't be the same as racial profiling. Number seven is that profiling would be incredibly offensive to Muslims, raising support for anti-American sentiment (and hence terrorism), which he then points out conflicts with number two, that there's no link between Islam and suicide terror.

Positing all the points that his thousands of readers made as a whole renders that whole incoherent, and I think that turns it into a Straw Man. The principles of honest argument (rather than political or popular debate) demand that you attack the strongest possible interpretation of your opponent's argument, not the weakest.

For example, point two, which he writes as "Furthermore, there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism." His interpretation is to take this literally, that his critics mean that there is no link between the two and therefore profiling Muslims would be useless. The charitable interpretation is that there's no necessary link between Islam and suicide terror. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims don't practice terrorism and are appalled by it. It's easy to argue that there is a correlative link between the two, as it's easy to read from the Koran that dying killing infidels is a good thing. The exact same thing can be garnered from Christian and Jewish texts, and both have strong traditions of murdering and dying for God. I believe there's a causative link between Islam and suicide terror, but it's not a universal causation. To put it another way, you won't die of cancer within minutes of smoking a cigarette. There are other factors at play.

Another reason Harris's approach in this article is flawed is because points two and seven are only in conflict if you take the uncharitable interpretations of each and assume that everyone making either argument is also in agreement with the other.

He then takes these arguments further and, to my eye, conflates them without justification with other events. Number seven, which is about offense given to Muslims and creating a culture that would lead to further terror, he links to the sort of appeasement that has been offered in response to Draw Mohammed Day. Cartoonists drew Mohammed, a portion of the Arab world went insane and burned, pillaged, and murdered. Some people responded by drawing Mohammed more, and were criticized by others, some of whom said, "That's just going to make them burn, pillage, and murder more." Those critics were in turn criticized for giving in to fear, and we need to stand up to them, etc. Does point seven necessarily link to that? No. Again, uncharitable.

The stronger interpretation of seven is that treating Muslims in that fashion as a group and without justification would necessarily anger them. Not only would we be creating a Muslim Malcolm X1, but we'd be creating support and sympathy for that type of individual among the Muslim population at home and abroad. It wouldn't drive all Muslims to angry, anti-American sentiment, and it wouldn't drive all of them to violence, but it would drive some, and the rest would find it harder to criticize them.

After other things like that which, I feel, don't get at the heart of the matter (that profiling would be counterproductive and dangerous), he segues into a discussion of Islamophobia that's somewhat relevant to the attacks he's facing but that aren't too interesting to me. I agree with him that Islam needs to be criticized on the grounds that, like all religions, it's factually wrong2 and that culturally a significant portion of the Islamic world represents a very serious threat to the non-Islamic world. I'm just disagreeing with him on the practical issue of racial profiling at airports.


Schneier's Response: The Trouble With Profiling
Summary: John Brockman is really smart. He sure hit the nail on the head, but I'm going to do a better job of explaining it with some simple analogies. Also, I'm going to point out a few things he missed, such as how randomized security cannot catch all possible threats and isn't intended to, but is intended to make the cost of trying high enough that terrorists don't even bother.

My response: Be smug, but not obviously so, after all I didn't fully anticipate what the nationally recognized expert on security would have to say on the subject. Only, you know, a lot of it.

The Full Dialog
The thing is that Schneier really is an expert about this and he answers all of Harris's points clearly and succinctly, and better than any amateur (me) could hope to. It's long, but well worth the read. Be aware that every time you think Harris is making a serious mistake, Schneier will point it out. I strongly recommend reading the full novella, because it's a short primer on security procedures and will explain how a proposed deviation like Harris's is a non-starter for simple, practical reasons as well as broader, ethical concerns.


1 - I'm aware that Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam, but the radical differences between its doctrines and those of the rest of Islam make them related, but not the same religion. Sort of like a Messianic Jewish cult that's also racist in two different directions.

2 - Among many other things, there is no god, so Muhammed couldn't have been his prophet. Also, pig is delicious, fasting is stupid, meteors are for study, not prayer. Scientific study. Making study carrel's out of it would be silly.
Post a Comment