Sam Harris has been making headlines and engaging in Twitter debates recently over his views on profiling at airports. It’s a bit difficult to respond to his views because he holds different ones simultaneously: In one instance, he explicitly says “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.” Anyone with an elementary understanding of the English language understands this as an unequivocal call for religious profiling targeting a specific religious community. In another instance, however, Harris suggests another kind of profiling: “Anti-profiling,” which simply excludes people “who obviously pose no threat,” or people whom “at a glance, you can rule out as non-Jihadists.” Which of these two different proposals does Harris actually advocate? For someone who frequently accuses his critics of misrepresenting his views, it surely seems convenient to hold multiple positions.
Yes, He Did Say Muslims Are the Target
In Harris’s first position targeting Muslims, he reluctantly includes himself in the profile, saying that while he doesn’t think he looks “like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one,” he does look plausibly Muslim, and therefore not “entirely outside the bull’s-eye”. But in more recent conversations and explanations, Harris appears to be playing up the second, “anti-profiling” position, where he enthusiastically thrusts himself into the center of the profile without reservation: “I’m as likely as almost anyone, based on surface appearance, to be the next suicide bomber.”
And then there is the racial aspect. In the “anti-profiling” position Harris now emphasizes, he insists that “it’s not a matter of singling out people from the Middle East, or people with dark skin.” But in the earlier piece, he takes issue with the fact that someone “who could have played the villain in a Bollywood film” had avoided scrutiny. Since even the most charitable reading of Harris’s incoherent positions includes an explicit reference to religious profiling and an implicit one for racial profiling, let’s tackle these arguments head on.
Ineffective and a Violation of Rights
According to Michael German, a former FBI agent who works with the ACLU, “Empirical studies of terrorists show there is no terrorist profile, and using a profile that doesn't reflect this reality will only divert resources by having government agents target innocent people.” He also says that racial profiling is “ineffective, unconstitutional and violates American values,” and policies like it “waste valuable resources and divert attention from real threats.”
The alternative German cogently argues for are security measures that focus “on evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion, which would be both more consistent with our values and more effective than diverting resources to a system of mass suspicion.” In essence, trying to find a terrorist is like trying to catch a needle in a haystack, and as the saying goes, racial and religious profiling (scrutinizing an entire racial or religious group) is just adding more hay to the stack. Individualized suspicion, based on a variety of factors, including behavior, is far more sensible.
German draws attention to one more drawback of racial and religious profiling: “Profiling can also be counterproductive by undermining community support for government counterterrorism efforts.” And since we know American Muslims report on violent rhetoric in their mosques and communities to the authorities, and since a Muslim was involved in the foiling of the 2010 Times Square attack, we know that maintaining trust between the Muslim community and law enforcement is an important part of countering terrorism.
There is another practical problem with profiling Muslims: They cannot be profiled by appearance because they’re part of nearly every ethnic and racial background. They’re White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and just about everything else, which means there isn’t a set of physical characteristics that could determine who is Muslim. This isn’t just true of Muslims in general, but also of violent Taliban and Al-Qaeda sympathizers, who include White Johnny Walker Lindh, Latino Jose Padilla and Black Umar Farouk.
If we did adopt a policy of going after Middle Eastern and South Asian-looking men, not only would we be profiling Arab Christians, South Asian Hindus and others who aren’t even Muslim, but you’d also be giving terrorists the key to penetrating our security: Simply present a face that isn’t the “Bollywood villain” Harris wants security to look out for. Do you really want to let Al-Qaeda know that recruiting a blonde woman in mom jeans is a golden ticket to get past scrutiny at airports?
Targeting Muslims is Morally Unjustifiable
Whenever I say it’s unjustifiable to target Muslims to the exclusion of other groups, I’m trolled by people who insist that Muslims deserve heightened scrutiny because they’re supposedly statistically proven to pose a bigger threat to Americans. My response is two-fold:
First, the claim that we face a greater threat from violent Muslims is simply wrong. Since 9/11, domestic right-wing extremists (white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, etc.) have claimed more American lives than have Muslim extremists. A survey of hundreds of law-enforcement agencies also found higher concern about anti-government groups than about Muslim extremists.
Second, if Muslim extremists really did statistically pose a greater threat, would that actually justify targeting Muslims with more security measures? Consider this before you answer: Given the mass-shootings by White people in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, Oak Creek, Seal Beach and now in Oregon, would anyone support searching White people as they go into crowded venues? Considering the vastly more enormous toll gun violence takes on Americans than terrorism, you’d think this would be a more important area to profile if profiling made any sense. Or take this more statistically precise example: According to FBI statistics over the past few years, African Americans are responsible for the majority of robberies in the US. But would anyone in their right mind support a policy where Black people are singled out for scrutiny when entering retail stores? The answer is so obvious as to go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: No, because we as a society understand that complex societal factors influence crime demographics, and we refuse to stigmatize an entire group when we know the overwhelming majority of them are decent people just like the rest of us.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 murders take place in the U.S. each year, to say nothing of other acts of violence. Could one not pick any random group (undocumented immigrants, bikers, brown-haired people … etc.) and compile a list of all their acts of violence to make them seem dangerous? Is that not what Islamophobes are doing when they focus on a random list of acts of violence by Muslims to spread fear and hatred of them? And if you think your own news-watching left you with justified unease towards Muslims, let me ask you this: Ever heard of the Jewish man in Montana who shot a bartender over a non-kosher drink? Or the anti-government White men who were recently arrested for making pipe bombs? Or the guy who chased TSA agents with a machete in New Orleans? You probably haven’t, but chances are good that you would have seen those headlines as top stories had Muslims been involved, and biased coverage does create biased perceptions.
Commonsense Profiling and “Anti-Profiling”
While the name “anti-profiling” doesn’t sound like the best fit, the policy behind it, as explained by Harris, isn’t unreasonable. It is basic common sense to say that five men in their 20s coming out of war-torn Syria deserve more scrutiny than a 6-year-old Norwegian girl. But it is also basic common sense that five Norwegian men in their 20s deserve more scrutiny than a 6-year-old American Muslim girl living in San Francisco. No one is against profiling altogether (all human beings engage in basic profiling to assess all sorts of things about people, including who could plausibly pose a threat). What I and countless others argue against is racial and religious profiling, which means singling out a group of people purely on the basis of their race or religion.
However, even Harris’s more sensible “anti-profiling” proposal isn’t without its problems: If it were pursued as a policy (disregarding children who are obviously not terrorists), gun parts and ammo hidden in a toddler’s stuffed animal could’ve ended up on a plane in 2012, as would have a loaded gun in a 10-year-old boy’s teddy bear in 2003. Nonetheless, there is a thoughtful discussion to be had on this point. If Harris wants to have that discussion without confusion or distractions, he should start by retracting the explicit and inexcusable call he made for profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim."