Sam Harris and Profiling

Post by Jim Newman


Sam Harris wrote a post on profiling, In Defense of 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.

“Although I don’t think I look like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one, I do not mean to suggest that a person like me should be exempt from scrutiny. But other travelers fit the profile far less than I do. One glance at these innocents reveals that they are no more likely to be terrorists than walruses in disguise. I make it a point to notice such people while queuing for security at the airport, just to see what sort of treatment they receive at the hands of the TSA.

Michael Mungai of the Huffington Post has written a response “End of Profiling: Letter to Sam Harris” Chris Stedman has also written a response “Sam Harris, Will You Visit a Mosque With Me?”. The latter is insulted at Sam’s Islamaphobia saying that there are many examples of moderate Muslims. However, I must agree that this is an incredibly small minority and I know of no instance where tens of thousands of Muslims have protested the atrocities of their fellow terrorist Muslims but tens of thousands of Muslims will protest and kill over cartoons and blasphemy—where were the thousands of moderates then saying to stop the killing? They were too busy apologizing and contextualizing the murders.

Stedman writes:

The real problem is the Islamophobic misinformation machine, supported by our conflict-driven media. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: for example, the mainstream media largely ignores violence against Muslims, such as when a mosque in Florida was bombed. (Just imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church.) The press also ignores stories of Muslim heroism, such as the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim. Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent, and imagine that an “Islam versus the West” clash of civilizations is inevitable, because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on Islam.

I have to agree with Hitchens that Muslims are by the definition of following the Koran literally, through many translations and interpretations, following a violent guide to life. It would also be a mistake to say that every Muslim follows violent words of the Koran and I praise the many who are trying to change it. I do not praise those who insist The West is to blame for the ills of the Mideast and have solidarity for Islam for tribal reasons. Islam desperately needs a reformation on any continent it exists where it is used literally or figuratively as reason for violence.

Yes, we are all insulted by labels, categories, stereotypes, and even archetypes. We don’t like to be labeled because it objectivizes us. As Sartre said “Hell is others” and as TS Elliot said “We are others”. Either way we would rather be dealt with as individuals even though most of us fit within at most 1,000 or so types, perhaps even 20 or 30. As my psychologist bro-in-law wears on a t-shirt—we are all the same in our own unique way.

In any case, the best of freedoms deal with us as individuals making individual choices. We are not ants. We are humans with a built-in personal agency bias called free will. Whether it is ephemeral or not we feel it. My brain-body may know I am thirsty before I think to myself I need a beer but I nevertheless have been politely informed by my body of such so that I could say hell no I need to finish this post and maybe that response was there early too, deep inside, and for some reason (the brain parts were at odds and an arbiter brain part said let’s wake Jim up and ask him) consciousness was brought into the discussion—or maybe I just happened to take a break and say hey, what is my brain doing?

In any case, aside from the individual conscience and conscious aspect of individual identity and rights, profiling shortcuts the search process somewhat but has its faults.

My sister flies often and also complains of little old ladies being searched. Little old ladies can carry bombs.

The problem is not that profiling isn’t a useful tool. It is. The problem is that it’s not a good enough tool. Like Ron Paul Jr who wanted a privileged prefly, no search, upper class list to fly through security, people who fly a lot are going crazy with home land security bullshit. My take on it is get rid of the security. It’s not worth it. It’s too damned late in the game of security or international diplomacy. But that’s not even part of the argument. So, the problem is not that profiling is objectivizing, or bigoted if you prefer, it is that it isn’t good enough in determining dangerous people.

I am suggesting that women, children, and little old ladies are dangerous. It is crazy to think that finding Muslim looking people will fully or even sufficiently evaluate dangerous individuals. And it has nothing to do with profiling. Profiling does work to some degree in the same sense that every time I go to a rock concert they search me harder because I look like a freak. And I was. I just knew how to deal with it. Profiling doesn’t get moles, newbies, and unwilling plants. Sam’s article is symptomatic of frustration at airport security.

I can’t even write about the obvious ways to curtail security as that is a threat and I can be questioned or even arrested.

It does smack of the horror of Japanese interns so we must be absolutely careful and respectful in the process. No one likes to be labeled by looks. Stedman is right to criticizing the poor behavior of atheists. The point is security and not predefining guilt or making racial or bigoted slurs.

The FBI “Communities Against Terrorism” Suspicious Activities Reporting Fliers site has some interesting info on profiling by security category. You read the various profiles and it just sucks. You know it’s too broad a net. You also know that people get so damned excited they start pointing the finger just because on aspect fits the profile.

The “Recognizing Sleepers” PDF was particularly interesting:

  • Arrival from countries where violent militant Islamic groups are known to operate
  • Long unexplained absences for purposes of religious education, charity work or pilgrimage
  • Travel to countries where militant Islam rules
“Attitude Indicators” is also wild:
  • Support for Militant Islamic groups
  • Excusing violence against Americans on grounds that American actions provoked the problem
  • Fury at the West for reasons ranging from personal problems to global policies of the US.
  • Conspiracy theories about Westerners (eg, the CIA arranged for 9/11)
  • Accusing the West of trying to destroy Islam
In 2007 the Washington post ran this article, “Terrorists Proving Harder to Profile”.

ZUTPHEN, Netherlands — On the surface, the young Dutch Moroccan mother looked like an immigrant success story: She studied business in college, hung out at the pub with her friends and was known for her fashionable taste in clothes.

So residents of this 900-year-old river town were thrown for a loop last year when Bouchra El-Hor, now 24, appeared in a British courtroom wearing handcuffs under an all-encompassing black veil. Prosecutors said she had covered up plans for a terrorist attack and wrote a letter offering to sacrifice herself and her infant son as martyrs.

“We were flabbergasted to learn that she had become a fanatic,” said Renee Haantjes, a college instructor who recalled her as “a normal Dutch girl.”

In 2005 PsyBlog posted.

People talk as though terrorists are ‘other’ than us, and while their actions are certainly ‘other’, experts on terrorists have discovered their backgrounds are often very normal. Terrorists are only human — too human — and that can be even more frightening….

If anything, then, terrorists are notable for their normality, for their ability to blend into the background and remain unnoticed. Those recruited tend to be of average appearance, normal in behaviour in the situation they are in, fairly young – between 20 and 25 – and reasonably well educated, often to university level.

The PPT The Profile of a Palestinian Suicide Terrorist shows that a suicide terrorist is 99% likely to be a male (except the LTTA and PKK), religious (76% versus 9% nationalist, and 1% leftist), unmarried (84%), between 17 and 27. Nonsuicide terrorists are similar but likely to have more education and in the past (Miller 1977) to have a revolutionary ideology rather than a religious ideology.

At “Profile of Suicide Terrorists Defies Common Stereotypes”

Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and terrorism researcher, cites a study in which he examined more than 400 al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and Europe. The study showed only about 13 percent went to madrassas, or religious-based schools, often thought to be a source of new suicide attackers.  Sageman said that the vast majority of terrorists in his study, about 84 percent, were radicalized in the West, rather than in their former countries….

Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Atran says understanding the theme of humiliation in terms of how they have been treated by foreign forces is important to understanding Islamists’ rage.  Individuals who choose to commit suicide bombing attacks often are influenced more by values and identity with the terrorist group than by other considerations for their own well-being, he says….

“The motivations for suicide attacks are not so different in many ways from the motivations for other types of terrorism, including attention to a cause, personal notoriety, anger, revenge and retribution against a perceived injustice,” says Audrey Kurth Cronin, a former specialist in terrorism with the Congressional Research Service, which is part of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Hell, they profile me now at airports because a bushy bearded Ashkenazi descendent looks a lot like a mideastern Muslim minus the suntan. When I am with my family they dismiss me more readily. That is a mistake but the assumption is that a family profiles lower. Most suicide bombers are single. I’m telling you any suicide bomber worth his salt would find a family willing to die for the cause to challenge the profiling. Any security agent, in all fields, that says they aren’t profiling is lying. We all make superficial assessments when considering our safety. It’s part of why we seek proper attire to show immediate inclusion and immediate trust. In a plural society it gets tricky.

Nevertheless, aside from emotions, if security after reviewing all of those caught in security could determine a profile that would better detect possible risks then as a temporary and what I would consider rather poor process they could use profiling. However, it’s a crappy solution, inevitably temporary and unfair.

Generally, the entire airport security issue is still a joke as Sam points out with his ammunition they missed. I took a guitar to Europe no sweat but I heard of others being stopped for steel strings that could strangle. One of three airport changes held back my umbrella as a potential weapon.

Anyone looking at the big picture can see how the process is a joke and can still be afraid, as even a shoe can be a bomb.

I read Mein Kamp, abridged, (I couldn’t dig through the unabridged drivel but I tried), and what amazed me was his astute observation that war is an utter suspension of humanity. Horrible it is but in war rules don’t matter. The Geneva convention and the rest of those rules seem humane to you and me but to someone who wants to win at all costs, or believes they are following an absolute ideology, a sacred ideology even, it just doesn’t matter.

My friends returning from Vietnam told me of women, children, and old people carrying bombs. The coast of Japan has many caves and they were filled with civilians of all ages readying suicide boats when we dropped the Atomic bomb instead of doing a land attack

Do you really think Americans would hesitate at any subterfuge when in war? It’s a joke that Muslims hate drones and night raids—as if politeness of consideration of family night life mattered. As if using drones was more cowardly because we are not facing the enemy—that is the old argument that war should be hand to hand instead of from planes, ships, and missile silos. Good grief how many people do I know that love medieval chivalry but it’s nevertheless killing—it’s as if we want to kill but do it politely. Or rather to experience the heat of battle. It’s a joke that we get insulted at pissing on dead bodies as if that were worse than killing them in the first place.

The only reason we practice any sort of humanity in war is for the hope that the enemy realizes we don’t think of it as full war. That some glimpse of humanity will show that we want to win but not annihilate or destroy at all costs. That’s a kind of diplomacy but when you begin to lose the war will you still care? This is a winner’s diplomacy.

More importantly, conquerors need to rule the people after conquest. Unless you kill everyone you don’t want to piss them off so bad they continue to fight after conquest. Ashoka after conquering India nearly broke the bank forcing the people to Buddhism to ensure peace. Osama bin Laden was worried that suicide bombers killing citizens would tarnish the reputation of jihad but infatuated Pakistanis et al don’t care.

I have been in self defense classes and especially for women it is hard to get them to defend themselves, “You mean I have to kick them in the balls as hard as I can? But won’t that make them impotent?” It is hard for men to be willing to bite, they want to punch. If you aren’t aggressive, trained, or acculturated it’s not intuitive. Often it is cultural. When I was a kid, school-ground fights were two people in a circle with no kicking allowed. Now, it’s a circle of several pounding the crap out of one–honor versus power of groups.

We say we want a fair fight but in war, personal survival, and even ideological wars, winning trumps humanity. World War II was a watershed experience in modern media-reported horrors. Comforted by distance and history we forget just how utterly horrible people will be to each other. Hell, half of Asia is related to Khan and his raping voracity.

It’s not that profiling is racist, it’s not effective enough such that old crippled women could hold a bomb and we have no good way of knowing that. Once you have suspended the rules of humanity and created such a deep conflict there are few limits. Both Harris and the responders are wrong. What we need are better diplomacy, better mechanized search systems, and an insistence on Universal Law and Rights.

Jim Newman, bright and well and

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One Response to Sam Harris and Profiling

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