Sam Harris defends profiling. Poorly.

Should people be profiled according to race or religion at airports? This might be politically incorrect, but is it not effective? If Osama bin Laden showed up at the airport in his traditional garb with his wives in tow, should he not be screened thoroughly? Sam Harris thinks he has answers.

Airport scanners are notoriously useless, and it isn’t difficult at all to fool airport scanners. Sam Harris says as much and provides an instance where he got live ammunition past airport security while the security personnel were busy checking the nearest pre-schooler.

While we were inadvertently smuggling bullets, one TSA screener had the presence of mind to escort a terrified three-year-old away from her parents so that he could remove her sandals (sandals!). Presumably, a scanner that had just missed 2.5 pounds of ammunition would determine whether these objects were the most clever bombs ever wrought.

I have some experience of this myself, although what I carried had nothing to do with ammunition – not being American, I have neither the means nor the need to possess firearms. In fact, say experts, the only improvement in air-travel related security in recent years has been to reinforce cockpit doors such that nobody can gain control of the aeroplane. The rest is just the world reacting to something that happened last week.

Several other people have also made similar points about airport security and its ineffectiveness, most notably a former head of the Transportation Security Administration in America. This being the case, Harris argues, surely, letting the old and the infirm and children get through security without hassle isn’t the worst thing to do? I am tempted to agree; however, the former head of the TSA, Kip Hawley, makes the point that

the second that you create a population of travelers who are considered “trusted,” that category of fliers moves to the top of al Qaeda’s training list, whether they are old, young, white, Asian, military, civilian, male or female.

And then Harris’ article goes completely off the rails. He first argues that people who ‘look’ like terrorists should be screened more thoroughly. A simple search (for ‘domestic terrorism in the US‘, for example) will tell you that there have been several acts of terrorism committed by people who do not at all match Harris’ profile. And since any of these idiots could have decided to blow up a planeload of people, screening airports for people who ‘look like’ Muslims or have Muslim names is a fool’s errand. This is to say nothing of the possibility that Al Qaeda may simply recruit people who don’t ‘look’ like terrorists (from Kip Hawley again):

The men who bombed the London Underground in July 2005 would all have been eligible for the Registered Traveler cards we were developing at the time. No realistic amount of prescreening can alleviate this threat when al Qaeda is working to recruit “clean” agents. TSA dropped the idea on my watch—though new versions of it continue to pop up.

After this, in what I can only assume is an attempt to not seem racist, Harris states that he would be bound by the same rule because he vaguely looks like some known terrorist post a shave. Needless to say, this argument is a non-starter. Harris’ prescription of screening people based on possible resemblances they might bear to known absconders from the law would only lead to longer queues and a skyrocketing number of false-positives: we all look like somebody else. This is especially disappointing coming from a neuroscientist who should know about the cross-race effect.

To answer the questions I rhetorically posed at the beginning of this post: profiling isn’t simply politically incorrect. It is ineffective, and would be a needless addition to already useless airport security systems.


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