In Which I Read the Sam Harris-Bruce Schneier Debate So You Don’t Have To

Long story short: Sam Harris said that we should specifically profile Muslims at airports, not grandmas in wheelchairs and 4-year-old girls, because if someone’s going to try to crash a plane in 2012, it’s almost certainly going to be a radicalized Muslim. 

Liberals went insane, calling Harris a racist and other terrible things, atheists disowned him, and I think somewhere Gandhi cried. Harris said, okay, then let me debate it with a security expert. He nabbed security bigwig Bruce Schneier, and they had at it on Harris’s blog.

I begin this as a huge fan of Sam Harris. He has helped me find so much clarity on a enormous range of issues, that he’s something of an intellectual role model for me. Even if I disagree with him, the path he takes to his positions I find extremely admirable. 

On this question in particular, I had a lot of cognitive dissonance. My cold, atheist brain said, “Oh right, that makes total sense.” My bleeding, liberal heart went, “But profiling is evil, it casts everyone in the same criminal net!” So I felt quite torn, but unlike many in the atheosphere, I was not willing to toss Harris out with the bathwater, as it were, even if he was wrong. I at no point believed that he came from a place of bigotry or racism or what have you. Others of my atheological ilk did not give him that benefit of the doubt, which I think was a mistake.

Anyway, Harris and Schneier debated at length, and it was a fascinating discussion — often prickly, but always substantive. I chose two pull-quotes that I felt encapsulated the two arguments.

From Harris:

Ordinary bank robbers and murderers are not united by an ideology that they are aggressively seeking to spread—and are spreading, in a hundred countries. They don’t have large networks of support and a larger population of people who sympathize with their basic motives, if not their methods. We do not have charitable foundations and academic departments devoted to promulgating a sympathetic understanding of bank robbery and murder.

In other words, these aren’t lone crazies who could be anybody. There is a specific population that is at the center of this crisis. And there are some people who are so obviously not of this population, that to waste time and energy and money scooping them up is absurd and probably counterproductive.

Here’s Schneier:

It doesn’t matter how effective al Qaeda leaders are at recruiting Muslims who don’t fit the profile. It doesn’t matter what the intelligence says, or who’s right and who’s wrong. By employing a simpler security system, the whole potential avenue of attack—not meeting the profile—disappears.

The wide net is necessary on a utilitarian level, not necessarily on an ideological level in service of the cause of liberal, pluralistic tolerance. Schneier also seems squeamish about profiling in that vein, but his case is technical: The simpler the system, the more bad guys we’ll catch. Sorry, grandma.

And I find that, if nothing else, very compelling. A lot of folks were trumpeting the idea that Harris had been “pwned” by Schneier, and I think that’s stupid. What Schneier did was point out that even if Harris is correct in his rationale, it didn’t make sense when applied practically to the task of weeding out malefactors. 

And this is what I loved about the exchange. It wasn’t a zero-sum, one-guy-is-right-and-the-other-guy-is-an-asshole game. Harris is right: The people trying to bring down planes are radicalized Muslims. It sucks that this is true, and it may not always be true, but it is true now, and all the more pernicious because of the instructions issued to these radicals from their holy book. And Schneier is (I presume) right: A too-nuanced system of profiling turns out to be far more burdensome, expensive, and time-consuming — and therefore less effective — than the simpler system he espouses. 

Hemant gets why this was such a good project:

There’s something to be said for a debate that’s not done in front of a crowd, where emotions and sentiment can get the best of the audience and the debaters end up playing to the audience instead of to each other. Here, both sides are laid out — very fairly, I believe, to Harris’ credit — and we can decide for ourselves which side makes a better case.

Exactly. I challenge my atheist and liberal friends who are hopping mad about Harris to adopt this attitude and tone, resist the knee-jerk reflex to oust him from our intellectual lives, and evaluate the claims calmly and rationally. Like he and Schneier just did. They didn’t wind up agreeing, but they also did right by the issue at hand.


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