Sam Harris’s New Plan for the War on Islam

May 2, 2012

Sam Harris now wants extra security screenings for everyone who looks Muslim (see his April 28th blog).

The Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and many other secular and civil rights organizations disagree, publishing a letter against religious profiling.

Who is more anti-Islam here?  Harris has long proclaimed that there’s no such thing as being too hard on Islam.  Is the rest of the secular movement going soft on Islam?

Let’s step back from this inter-secular dispute to look at the big picture.  It’s only natural to suppose that in order to sustain a War on Terror, you’d need an actual war, with two sides in combat.  One side would be the terrorists, predictably enough, and the other side would be potential victims targeted by the terrorists.

It would also be natural to suppose that this war has to mostly be conducted where the terrorists are designing their plans.  By the time a terrorist reaches American soil equipped for destruction, that terrorist would be well-disguised and already able to cause violence here, even at a security checkpoint.  National efforts to prevent terrorists from reaching our shores would be mostly invisible to ordinary citizens, at least until the evening news discusses a drone strike, or some such military action, taking place very far away.

For nearly all ordinary citizens, our own “front line” in this war is not drawn in a foreign country, but at a border crossing or an airport in our country.  And we understandably want to see visible efforts by homeland security to prevent terrorists from getting wherever they want to go.  We earnestly want to see effective screenings and occasional removal of suspicious-looking people.  That would make us feel so much better, I guess.

Yet we should be cautioned by scientific psychology here.  Our innate folk psychology cannot be trusted, especially at security checkpoints, where heightened arousal of emotional states and anxieties can distort objective observation and reasoning.  Do we suddenly transform into Sherlock Holmes while removing our coats, belts, and shoes?  Are we abruptly more qualified to judge what constitutes an effective screening of mass numbers of people, based solely on brief trips through screening checkpoints?  What could we possible see in that short time, and by what rational process could we judge what we perceive?  If your experience is anything like mine, I see some random people, mostly nice-looking people, getting some thorough screenings.  None of those folks, from children to the elderly, ever looked like a terrorist to me.  For all I could intuitively tell, the only people getting special attention don’t look so worthy of extra scrutiny at all.  If I let my simple cognitive biases have their way, I could easily jump to the conclusion that the TSA (for example) was screening all the wrong people.  And that verdict would continually receive more and more selective confirmation, as I keep on “observing” pointless screenings applied to people who look less and less like terrorists.

Folk psychology and intuitive cognition from an untrained person like you and me cannot supply reliable judgments about security screenings.  We never will be anything like capable judges, especially under those checkpoint circumstances.  Not only are we incompetent to judge what we can see, we are quite incompetent to judge everything we can’t see, such as the numerous invisible techniques employed by TSA or any other country’s security forces.  Indeed, scientific psychology understands what you cannot: your own unconscious cognitive biases prevent you from even realizing how incompetent you are – you can’t help but judge badly, and you won’t be able to understand how any visible security measure could be working.  None of this means that the TSA is perfect (far from it!) but it does mean that you and I could not possibly tell how far from perfect it is.  And just because the TSA is (probably) far from perfect doesn’t automatically make us fine judges of what would be better.

Still, we should sympathize with our poor brains – they are struggling to stay in control.  Desperate for reassurance over this troubling security failure (as one’s brain judges it to be), anyone can proceed to grasp at some better method for strengthening security, any method at all which strikes you as intuitively sensible.  Deprived of solid information and valid reasoning about such technical matters, you might think to yourself, “If only those stupid security forces would screen the real terrorists.”  And your own brain will helpfully supply a vision of “who” those real terrorists are.  Anybody’s brain can automatically do this, even the brain of someone like Sam Harris, noted neuroscientist.  Harris recently blogged that:

"We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim..."

Did Harris become an expert in security recently, while he was also getting his PhD in neuroscience?  It seems not.  His argument supporting his stunning security plan largely consists of his anecdotes about seeing all the wrong people getting extra screening at TSA checkpoints.  Besides Harris’s noted skills in cognitive psychology, his capacity for logic is clearly at work here.  Let’s boil down his argument to essentials. It looks about like this:


Premise 1.  I see all the wrong people getting screened by the TSA.

Premise 2.  Among the right people to screen are the real potential terrorists.

Conclusion:  The TSA should specially screen EVERYONE who could conceivably be Muslim.


I’ve taught plenty of logic over the years as a professor, so I can spot a couple of logical gaps here, and so can you.  Missing premises need to be filled in, to permit this “argument” to have anything close to logical validity.  In all fairness to Harris, his “addendum” to his blog supplies some of those needed premises. He adds,

"suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon"


"To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest."

By adding in these premises, we obtain something like this:


Premise 1.  I see all the wrong people getting screened by the TSA.

Premise 2.  Among the right people to screen are the real potential terrorists.

Premise 3.  Suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon.

Premise 4.  Ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances indicate a person’s beliefs.

Premise 5.  Determining a person’s beliefs is a reliable way to evaluate terrorist potential.

Conclusion:  The TSA should specially screen EVERYONE who could conceivably be Muslim.


Well, this argument is only marginally better, in terms of validity.  Whether the premises are actually true is a separate matter.  Premise 1 may be true, but it’s irrelevant – the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”  Premise 2 sounds right, but it actually tempts one’s thinking down the wrong path.  Premise 3 doesn’t help Harris – just because people holding Muslim beliefs are among actual terrorists, that doesn’t mean that those terrorists typically look Muslim.  If you feel that “behavioral profiling” sounds smarter than just trying to guess a person’s religion by appearances, you would indeed be on sounder security ground.  But behavioral profiling focuses on all those details of context and conduct mentioned by Harris, going directly to figuring out a person’s real intentions.  Reliable behavioral profiling doesn’t need to go down the side road of first guessing at a person’s religion, and then guessing at whether those religious beliefs include hostility towards the West, and next guessing whether that hostility is sufficiently high to infer that this person has lethal intent.  Behavioral profiling goes pretty much straight from conduct to intent – the more suspicious the behavior, the more worthy of scrutiny (and during that extra scrutiny, direct questioning about religion may be appropriate).  It’s not that a person’s religion is irrelevant – everyone agrees that religion can be relevant – but rather that scientific behavioral profiling knows when during a special screening to directly inquire into religion (see the discussion among experts during the 2010 Intelligence Squared debate, for example).  To place direct religious profiling at the head of the line where screening begins, as Harris wishes to do, sounds more like the product of wishful thinking than science.

As Bruce Schneier argues (thanks for the link goes to Josh Rosenau’s blog about Harris):

"The problem with automatic profiling is that it doesn’t work. Terrorists don’t fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. They’re European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was Nigerian. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a Jamaican father. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was the Unabomber. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004 were female. Palestinian terrorists routinely recruit “clean” suicide bombers, and have used unsuspecting Westerners as bomb carriers."

But Sam Harris can’t tell you about genuine behavioral profiling – as he admits at the end of his addendum, “There may be interesting arguments against profiling” – so Harris rests content with his amateur analysis of why TSA screenings look so ridiculous.  He so badly wants every possible Muslim to get extra scrutiny, and he is unable to figure out why the TSA won’t obviously screen the people who kinda “look” Muslim (like him, as he says), so he searches around for an explanation for what is really happening here.  And his brain once again helpfully suggests an explanation: bad politics is behind this charade of security.  Unable to guess at what the TSA could really be doing by screening people of all ages and genders and races and religions, he hints that only “political correctness” is going on here.  In frustration he demands, “Is there nothing we can do to stop this tyranny of fairness?”  And his addendum repeats this frustration over the political blindness of those who would defend the TSA: “I view the furor over this article to be symptomatic of the very political correctness that I decry in it.”

Even if liberal “political correctness” were really behind the TSA theater, that bizarre accusation fails to help Harris’s quest for Muslim profiling.  What is the logic now?  “The politically-manipulated TSA is incompetent, so profile all Muslims.”  Hmmm... now that’s a false dilemma.  I do recall a third option: better behavioral profiling.  The fact that serious behavioral profiling would be almost invisible to the casual civilian traveler going through a checkpoint is a point that doesn’t really occur to Harris.  The additional fact that hasty and ill-conceived “security” measures, amounting to unwarranted harassment of innocent citizens already targeted by social prejudice, only further alienates the Muslim community, doesn’t register with Harris at all.  But we know from his numerous writings where Harris’s brain is already at: no amount of extra scrutiny upon potential Muslims is too much.  Having no scientific or logical basis for his swift verdict, deeper unconscious cognitive processes are likely at work.  His War on Islam is bordering on the fanatical unless he pulls back from such unscientific rhetoric like this.

Sober friends of science, secularism, and the US Constitution had better be doing the serious thinking here.  The Center for Inquiry and other major secular organizations have resoundingly rejected blanket religious profiling.  Have they gone soft on Islam?  We all judge religion harshly for its capacity to inspire immoral beliefs.  But we’re smarter to let the real experts, and not us amateur psychologists, figure out how to discern someone’s real intentions towards violence.  There's too much at stake for democracy to let fanaticism win this war.