Prominent Atheist Defends Profiling
The philosopher Daniel Dennett jokes that the job of the philosopher is to defend the indefensible. Sam Harris fits that definition pretty well. And often. His latest indefensible essay is called “In Defense of Profiling.”
The basic premise is that Muslims carryout terrorism, so the TSA should profile Muslims, and leave lil’ white grandmas alone. Like many of Harris’s fervently anti-Muslim positions, his essay displays a profound disdain for justice and wisdom. It doesn’t seem too foolish, at the most superficial glance, to say that X people are more statistically prone to do Y scary thing and, therefore, we should scrutinize X people more rigorously for signs of Y behavior. As Harris puts it, “Every moment spent frisking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir subtracts from the scrutiny paid to more likely threats. Who could fail to understand this?” No one would fail to understand this if, in fact, it weren’t utter bullshit.
Like so much of Harris’s work, this essay is based on the aforementioned utter bullshit. The first bit of bullshit here is that there are so many terrorists — Muslims, of course — hellbent on our destruction that random screenings detract from our focus, which need be intensely aimed at the unrelenting horde of swarthy evil doers. Harris’s failure is common misconception — made especially egregious by his purported status as an “intellectual.” There’s an atmosphere of paranoia in America, and by extension in much of our media, that we’re under constant threat. Didn’t you hear about that foiled terrorist plot on the news? Well, as it turns out, most plots “foiled” by the FBI were also plotted by the FBI. Is “terrorism,” as we understand the term, a real thing? Of course. But one would hope an “intellectual” like Harris capable of honestly evaluating the threat, rather than, say, succumbing to shaky right-wing presumptions.
Harris often touts the claim that Muslims are by and large the perpetrators of terrorism. He blithely ignores the acts of murder, war, and assassination committed by America itself, which far surpass — in both body count and frequency — Muslim terrorism. But without delving into Harris’s criminally obtuse blind spot for, and thereby promotion of, American terrorism, he often makes the argument that Islam is the root of all terrorism. This worldview is simplistic verging on flatly wrong. Just as he ignores American terrorism, which in itself contributes to Muslim terrorist blowback, he disregards the myriad geopolitical reasons that Muslim terrorism exists – external to or in conjunction with Islamic doctrine. Is fundamentalist Islam an ugly and frightening thing? Without a doubt. But to completely cast aside the political and socioeconomic factors that breed fundamentalism, and to broadly indict Islam, is not only appallingly ignorant but also counterproductive.
But the above are general gripes with Harris and his contemptibly myopic brand of “new atheism” — of which the late Christopher Hitchens was so fond. So, why shouldn’t we profile? Why maintain this “tyranny of fairness,” as Harris laughably calls it? Well, a good answer is found in posing the same type of question about any number of this country’s laws and institutions. If African-Americans commit a higher percentage of crimes per capita, why not turn our inner cities into martial law zones (if that weren’t already the case)? If teenagers and the elderly are responsible for a huge portion of fatal car crashes, why shouldn’t these people by profiled, stopped at random, and subjected to tests of competency? And since you’re four times as likely to die from lightning strike than you are a terrorist attack, why shouldn’t we nuke the sky? It is, after all, a very serious threat.
Civil liberties are a funny thing. You either have them or you don’t. They either cover the weakest and most vilified among us or they’re totally worthless. Rights are meaningless if applied only to a certain class of citizen. Harris would be right to argue against the entirety of the DHS Industrial Complex. He would be right to argue against NYPD surveillance of Muslims. He would be right to argue against warrantless wiretapping. He would be right to argue against domestic drone use. Or he could argue for all these terrible things — if they applied to everyone. He’d still be a totalitarian jackass who doesn’t understand the precepts of a free society, but at least it wouldn’t smack of shoddy prejudicial thinking. Our “villains” change every generation — their complexions, nationalities, and dogmas. If we trounce the rights of every villain class du jour, we’re just not doing freedom correctly. Justice for some is justice for no one.
There’s a disturbing overlap between Harris’s ilk of “new atheists” and neoconservative Christians wherein Islam is considered the gravest threat to civilization, and its defeat justifies all manner of Western hypocrisy. And if you don’t recognize their unfounded claim, or feel the need to delve into geopolitical nuance to more thoroughly explain the issue of terrorism, well, to Harris, you’re just guilty of underestimating the threat. End of story.
Well, as a guy who supposedly arrived at atheism by reason, maybe Harris needs some empirical data to set him straight. 9/11, the linchpin of the “new atheist” and neoconservative confluence, resulted in about 3,000 tragic deaths. The Iraq War, which the Bush admin sold partially on the lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do those 3,000 deaths, has wrought well over 100,000 civilian casualties – a far superior jihadi recruitment tool than anything al Qaeda (which at last count stood at fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan) could ever cook up on its own. If Harris were as concerned about Islamic terrorism as he says, a good place to start fighting it might be in denouncing the worldwide slaughter of Muslims.
But, as his essay clearly shows, Sam Harris doesn’t really care about certain kinds of people, and he cares less about data that gets in the way of his job of defending the indefensible.
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