Monday, 30 April 2012

In Defence of Prejudice?

In which I express concern and outrage at Sam Harris's defence of profiling

On checking my twitter feed the other night, I was more than a little disturbed to see a few disparaging references to Sam Harris - a leading figure of the modern Atheist movement, described as one of the 'four horsemen'. On following a link to his website I soon understood why - and am rather shocked and appalled that such a thing has come to pass. Essentially, Sam Harris has written an article in defence of airport security profiling, specifically, targeting people who fit the typical description of a Muslim terrorist. I suggest you go read it.

The main theme of the article is that the current security theatre pervading airports in the US is absurd and pointless, not only subjecting ordinary people to significant inconvenience and stress, but likely being ineffective in actually preventing terrorism.  Well, I can't say I disagree with that, and it certainly seems the actions of the Transportation Security Administration are becoming increasingly ridiculous. However, where Harris goes with this is deeply troubling, in that he advocates profiling based on appearance and ethnicity, and focusing attention on those who 'look like terrorists'.

Harris's argument has one big false premise: that it is obvious who the suspects are. As PZ Myers points out in his response to this, many terrorists, such as Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, are not even slightly middle-eastern. It seems rather incongruous, and historically inaccurate, to see modern terrorism solely through the lens of the events of 9/11, and to conflate the categories of "terrorist" with "Islamic extremist". Indeed, given the rather small number of terrorist acts actually perpetrated by militant Islamic fundamentalists in the past few decades, it seems that the threat of this kind of terrorism has been blown out of all proprtion by the media and a goverment only too eager to impose draconian laws - as Adam Curtis's excellent 'Power of Nightmares' documentary describes. The discrepancy between the real and imagined threats - and the political power this can confer - is a fascinating issue underlying much of recent history; but for the time being, it suffices to say that Muslim-initiated terrorism is neither as pervasive nor as exclusive as we are often led to assume. To say the least, this weakens the argument that a typical terrorist looks like what we think a Muslim looks like, whatever that may be.

To be fair to Harris, he is not making veiled references to what a terrorist supposedly looks like, to insinuate it's a Muslim issue without naming names: he comes right out and says it openly. But he does not stop there: not only, he says, should we preferentially profile Muslims, but those that look even slightly like they might be one. Profiling moves from any demographic and statistical  justification it may have had, to snap judgements based solely on appearance - because apparently when it comes to trained fighters attempting to pass off as innocent citizens, "TSA screeners can know this at a glance". Disappointingly, he even invokes the spectre of political correctess, as if not preying on a group of people due to their enthicity and appearance were symptoms of over-zealous adherence to a code of feigned diplomacy, rules imposed to stop us telling it like it is.

This kind of built-in prejudice is far too close for comfort to that most heinous of crimes, "driving while black" - the parallels with the treatment of young black men over the last century, from the casual stereotyping to the lazy justification, are all too obvious. But I won't dwell on that, partly because using the insert-blacks-here gambit is a somewhat patronising way of making the point, but mainly because I can't believe that Harris had not thought of it before writing this piece - and presumably deemed it a worthwhile policy to support regardless.

What I will mention is that research has shown that terrorists are disproportionately likely, compared to their peers, of coming from engineering backgrounds. Whatever the reason may be (maybe engineers are easier to recruit, or aspiring terrorists see it as a valuable skill to obtain) is beside the point: but wouldn't it therefore be more sensible to profile passengers on this basis? Should suspicion fall on a large swathe of the population, simply because they possess a skill which is associated with a vanishingly small group of terrorists?  No, clearly not, that would be grossly unfair - and the same should apply for any other such criertion.

One of Harris's main points - where again, there is a grain of truth - is that in casting the net so wide as to include everyone (in what he disingenuously calls a "tyranny of fairness"), we sample too sparsely and risk missing the real criminals. But in making this point he describes the case of a young girl being taken to have her sandles examined, while he inadvertently smuggles a bag full of ammunition: and isn't this exactly the problem? He, as a fine upstanding example of the average white male, would be unlikely to fall within the arbitrary definition of what a terrorist looks like, and could get away with carrying dangerous weaponry onto a flight. Doesn't this hint that the kind of profiling he advocates is doomed to fail?

As PZ goes on to say, this approach also misses a fundamental point about how terrorists will try to mount an attack: they will go for whichever method is least expected. The moment we decide what a terrorist should look like, we virtually guarantee that none will; telling them who is not under suspicion is essentially telling them where to hide the bombs. Why, after years of battling enemies who are allegedly hidden amongst Americans, in sleeper cells, home grown terror factions, or otherwise able to evade detection, would it be sensible to assume a terrorist would look the part?

There are a few other things that Sam Harris says, aside from this main point, that I take exception to, and need addressing. He has the audactity to say that, far from being affronted by such blatant prejudice, the minority groups automatically labelled as potential walking detonations should be glad of this.  Yes, with their insistence to dress as they do or show their darkened faces in public, they should be happy to be suspected - it's for their own good! - because after all, the do look a big dodgy.  His insistence that he would not mind, if the roles were reversed, drips condescention, and it is tempting to imagine that he has never been on the receiving end of this kind of open discrimination. His Ben Stiller quip falls rather short of the mark: having a passing resenblence to a one-off criminal is not the same as having your whole ethnic group, even your very identity, tarred with the same badly applied brush. Furthermore, I find his 'Bollywood villain' comment to be somewhat inappropriate in this setting: so he's Indian and looks a bit shifty? And doesn't look concerned at the elderly couple being subjected to various prodding and probing? Get 'im! No matter that this is a completely different ethnic group from the ones he tries to argue are chief suspects - he doesn't fit in the innocent, white, harmless category, and is offhandedly cast as the bad guy.

I agree that there needs to be a degree of common sense applied to security. The ban on carrying liquids, or requests to remove clothing bearing even a picture of a gun, are over-eager attempts to look as though something - anything - is being done. There might perhaps be an argument that certain groups - toddlers, the infirm, young families - are "obviously" not about to commit acts of mass murder; but given the known cases of seemingly innoccent people being tools of horrendous killing (perhaps against their will), it is hard to see how this could be applied without being an obvious security flaw.

Security agencies may well be paranoid and making a lot of ineffectual fuss in desperation, and I certainly do not want to live in a world ruled by fear and suspicion, but history shows what can happen if we are not prepared. However, this does by no means justify a policy based upon discriminating against minority groups merely due to past associations or prejudices. Whichever way is chosen to protect airports - and society in general - we should never settle for a method which is indistinguishable from systematic, institutional racism.

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