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.

Crime Has Not Fallen in the United States, It’s Been Shifted

My mind (and sense of conscience) was blown by an article in n + 1 on the horror that is the American prison system. I won’t go into the horrifying detail, but suffice it to say that the wrongs done to small-time crooks and mere drug addicts, all with the knowledge of — and collusion with — prison authorities, are grotesque, far, far beyond the notion of “paying one’s debt to society.” As writer Christopher Glazek puts it, “Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted.” And shifted inside the prison system.

One avenue of his exploration of what to do about this moral crisis is something I would love to see a thinker like Sam Harris tackle, as it challenges basic ideas of what it is to live in a safe, policed society. We have to, Glazek explains, distinguish between those who need to be dealt with in a manner that does not involve their utter dehumanization, and those who are genuine dangers to their fellow humans.

An important part of that answer has to be that we must simply put up with an increased level of risk in our daily lives. But what about Charles Manson? Surely something must be done to prevent Charles Manson from chopping up celebrities.

If, in the popular imagination, the primary purpose of prisons is to keep us safe from (the vanishingly small number of) people like Charles Manson, then we should simply kill Charles Manson. Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward. A prisonless society where murderers were systematically executed and rapists were automatically castrated wouldn’t be the most humane society imaginable, but it would be light-years ahead of the status quo.

I’m going to need to chew over this one for a while. Check it out yourself and see where you land.

On Violence: Accepting What I Could (and Couldn’t) Have Done

As the tens of readers of this blog are no doubt sick of being reminded, I was the victim of a violent assault about a year ago in Washington, DC. It’s impossible for me to give you any meaningful explanation of the psychological aftermath of such an event in any brief form. But one particular mental scar that I presume is common among victims of violence is the nagging question of what I could have done differently. Could I have avoided it? Did I bring it upon myself?

Perhaps most resonating and sensitive to me as a male is whether I could have fought back.

Somewhere down this way, the scene of the crime.

It’s an absurd question, really, because I know that I could not have. I was snuck up on from behind and hit extremely hard on the back of my head, which knocked me straight to the ground, after which I was pummeled mercilessly by two assailants whose faces I never saw. My neocortex knows there was nothing to be done but survive. My lizard brain, and a small handful of males in my life who I presume are well-meaning, tell me otherwise.

Hero-of-the-blog Sam Harris recently wrote an incredible essay on our responses to and preparations for violence, and as he does in all other subjects which he tackles, he offers stark, clear warnings and advice. The theme? “True self-defense is based not on techniques but on principles.”

Harris mainly focuses on preventable violence, or situations in which there are options (whether to follow the instructions to get in one’s car from a parking lot mugger, for example). But in a paragraph relevant to my own story, he reminds me to shut out the voices of macho egotism espoused by my self-critical R-complex and some “traditional” males in my life, some of whom have suggested that had I only been trained in martial arts, I could have neutralized the attack (with my own emphasis):

Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a “fight.” Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively,without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.

No one has spelled this out for me so clearly as Harris has, and I must say, it gives me some comfort, though I imagine many men would dismiss this in a huff.

I was also glad to read some of what Harris had to say about not allowing yourself to be placed in a vulnerable position in the first place:

You are under no obligation, for instance, to give a stranger who has rung your doorbell, or decided to stand unusually close to you on the street, the benefit of the doubt. If a man who makes you uncomfortable steps onto an elevator with you, step off. If a man approaches you while you are sitting in your car and something about him doesn’t seem right, you don’t need to roll down your window and have a conversation. Victims of crime often sense that something is wrong in the first moments of encountering their attackers but feel too socially inhibited to create the necessary distance and escape.

At my current retail workplace, I have begun to practice this with less and less feeling of apology. When a person enters the store and immediately approaches me too closely, I make a broad step back to create distance and frankly also to communicate that this degree of physical nearness is unnecessary (we can talk about what they need without being close enough to hug) and simply not going to be an option. In other words, in case their intentions are not benign, I’m not going to give them the advantage of proximity.

I may be behaving in a paranoid manner, and I accept that. But after what I’ve gone through, I just don’t see a reason to give everyone, as Harris says, the benefit if the doubt. I’m not a dick about it (I hope), but I’m not willing any longer to be a patsy either.