I didn’t write about the attacks in Oslo last year because…what is there to say. The bombing and shootings are tragic, the Norwegian people have shown an admirable resilience in the face of terrorism, and wingnuts who initially tried to pin the attack on Muslims have egg on their faces.
I was especially struck recently by the charming protest directed at the confessed author of that tragedy, Anders Breivik. In testimony during his trial for murdering 77 fellow Norwegians last summer, Breivik singled out for criticism the song “Children of the Rainbow,” a translation of Pete Seeger’s “My Rainbow Race.” In reply, tens of thousands turned out in a square near the courthouse to sing the song for Breivik. The crowd included cultural ministers from Sweden, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, joining together to call for a “world where every sister and every brother shall live together like small children of the rainbow.”
It is through such unity and such diversity that we defeat hate like that which inspired Breivik and the 9/11 hijackers to kill. Breivik targeted members of a party from Norway’s left in part because he read too much of the work of the American Right, citing them extensively in the lengthy anti-Muslim screed he drafted before the attacks. He cited a version of the Overton Window to justify his actions, saying he hoped that his attacks would move the perceived extreme limit of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment sufficiently far out as to legitimize his heroes. Those heroes include the usual cast of wingnuts from the US, the folks who ginned up a controversy over an Islamic center several blocks from the World Trade Center (the “World Trade Center mosque” that isn’t a mosque and isn’t at the World Trade Center), and who have done all they could to prevent a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, TN. Also Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Breivik would be inspired by the rhetoric of those folks because civil libertarians have worried for some time about the toxic rhetoric coming from anti-Muslim corners.
Anyway, Sam Harris regards some folks in those circles as friends, and responded to the Breivik murders quickly, predictably trying to distance himself from Breivik without condemning Breivik’s ideas. He writes: “Breivikâs explicit goal was to punish European liberals for their timidity in the face of Islam.” Yes, where have we heard that before… Harris writes:
I have written a fair amount about the threat that Islam poses to open societies, but I am happy to say that Breivik appears never to have heard of me. He has, however, digested the opinions of many writers who share my general concernsâTheodore Dalrymple, Robert D. Kaplan, Lee Harris, Ibn Warraq, Bernard Lewis, Andrew Bostom, Robert Spencer, Walid Shoebat, Daniel Pipes, Bat Yeâor, Mark Steyn, Samuel Huntington, et al. He even singles out my friend and colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali for special praise, repeatedly quoting a blogger who thinks she deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. With a friend like Breivik, one will never want for enemies.
Indeed. I like how Harris just slips the name Walid Shoebat into the middle there. But Shoebat is also a noted fabulist, whose claim to fame as a former Islamic terrorist who became an anti-Islamic Christian was somewhat undermined when it turned out the terrorist attacks he claimed to have committed never actually happened. Whether Breivik’s choice of reading discredits those authors can be debated, but it ought to at least worry those folks that their arguments could be taken to this extreme.
What’s interesting is that Harris pivots quickly to try to salvage Breivik’s ideas from Breivik. And to do it badly, even hamfistedly:
One can only hope that the horror and outrage provoked by Breivikâs behavior will temper the growing enthusiasm for right-wing, racist nationalism in Europe. However, one now fears the swing of another pendulum: We are bound to hear a lot of deluded talk about the dangers of âIslamophobiaâ and about the need to address the threat of âterrorismâ in purely generic terms.
…Islam remains the most retrograde and ill-behaved religion on earth. And the final irony of Breivikâs despicable life is that he has made that truth even more difficult to speak about.
Shorter Sam Harris:
The shootings and bombings in Oslo are a tragedy in no small part because they remind people that terrorism is bigger than Islam, and that the anti-Islam movement consists racist loons.
I’m inspired to dredge up this history because Harris just blogged a defense of racial and religious profiling, a piece which joins his defense of torture and his defense of pre-emptive nuclear war as reasons no one should ever take Harris seriously on policy matters (his philosophical failings are another matter altogether).
Harris’s defense of profiling doesn’t really advance anything new. There’s a lot of criticism of TSA screenings out there, and the apparent absurdity of watching grandmothers with walkers be groped by agents while folks in djellabas and turbans wander past is a standard part of such complaints. There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of TSA screenings (and I’ve made some of them here), but the randomness of screenings isn’t one of them.
Harris wrongly sees it all through a lens of political correctness:
The spirit of political correctness hangs over the whole enterprise like the Angel of Deathâindeed, more closely than death, or than the actual fear of terrorism. And political correctness requires that TSA employees direct the spotlight of their attention at randomâor appear to do soâwhile making rote use of irrational procedures and dubious technology.
Although I donât think I look like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one, I do not mean to suggest that a person like me should be exempt from scrutiny. But other travelers fit the profile far less than I do. … an elderly couple … mid-eighties and infirm… a wheelchair …
It seems that they had neglected to take off their shoes. A pair of TSA screeners stepped forward to prevent this dangerous breach of securityâremoving what appeared to be orthopedic footwear from both the woman in the wheelchair and the man now staggering at her side. This imposed obvious stress on two harmless and bewildered people and caused considerable delay for everyone in my line. I turned to see if anyone else was amazed by such a perversion of vigilance. The man behind me, who could have played the villain in a Bollywood film, looked unconcerned.
…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!). …Needless to say, a glance at the girlâs family was all one needed to know that they hadnât rigged her to explode.
Except not! Sam Harris’s finely-honed sense of ethnic stereotypes notwithstanding, I gather that the swarthy villain behind him on line didn’t actually hijack the plane, while terrorist groups are known to plant explosives on children and in medical equipment, and there are elderly terrorists, too. And what exactly does someone pretending not to be a jihadi look like, that TSA should be able to so trivially screen them out?
More importantly, terrorists aren’t stupid. If you create a system that predictably makes certain people less susceptible to screening, terrorists will see that and find ways to exploit that opening. If you screen folks from certain countries more thoroughly, terrorists recruit people from other countries to make your attack. If folks with Arabic names are being given extra screening, terrorists recruit guys with names like Jose Padilla. Or they use fake identities to get around the name screening. Terrorists know how to use makeup and surgery, they don’t wear obviously ethnic garb during attacks, they know to recruit folks who won’t trigger people’s prejudices, and they know how to test the system to figure out how best to slip through.
As that last link shows, a system based on profiling will demonstrably work less well than random screening. As Bruce Schneier (among others) argues:
The problem with automatic profiling is that it doesnât work.
Terrorists donât fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. Theyâre 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 âcleanâ suicide bombers, and have used unsuspecting Westerners as bomb carriers. …
As counterintuitive as it may seem, weâre all more secure when we randomly select people for secondary screening â even if it means occasionally screening wheelchair-bound grandmothers and innocent looking children. And, as an added bonus, it doesnât needlessly anger the ethnic groups we need on our side if weâre going to be more secure against terrorism.
This last bit gets to the second, and I’d argue more important, failing of racial/religious profiling: not only doesn’t it work, it’s also immoral. It’s immoral for the same reasons that apartheid, Jim Crow laws, and the internment of Japanese-Americans were immoral. Using those broad markers as a basis for how we treat individuals means that we ignore the person, reducing that person to whatever stereotype we choose to impose. It’s bad public policy, and it’s bad police work.
I would argue, in fact, that the practical ineffectiveness of such policies is an inevitable result of their moral failings.
In any event, Sam Harris is so bent on inspiring a war on Islam that he can’t see the practical or moral problems with profiling, and paints it all as “this tyranny of fairness,” as if fairness were a problem to be overcome rather than a goal to be promoted. At most, it seems to be just something worth giving lip service: “Some semblance of fairness makes sense,” he allows.
Still, even in his muddled thoughts, an inkling of the problem bubbles through:
Granted, I havenât had to endure the experience of being continually profiled. No doubt it would be frustrating. But if someone who looked vaguely like Ben Stiller were wanted for crimes against humanity, I would understand if I turned a few heads at the airport. However, if I were forced to wait in line behind a sham search of everyone else, I would surely resent this additional theft of my time.
We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldnât put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bullâs-eye… But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance. [They can? On what evidence? -JR]
Needless to say, a devout Muslim should be free to show up at the airport dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives should be free to wear burqas. But if their goal is simply to travel safely and efficiently, wouldnât they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves? At a minimum, wouldnât they want a system that anti-profilesâapplying the minimum of attention to people who obviously pose no threat?
That he hasn’t had to face profiling, and thus can’t really speak to its effects, is only part of the issue here. The most striking thing in this closing passage is how blithely he moves from “people who look like a specific wanted person” to “people who look Muslim,” as if Muslims are inherently suspect, and must prove their innocence. Also, Harris’s assumption that it’s easy to single out “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.”
If you’ve never spent time browsing through the Muslims Wearing Things tumblr, you really ought to do so now. The author of the site explains why it was necessary:
Former NPR analyst Juan Williams, among other ignorant people, has an irrational fear of Muslims, and thinks you can identify them based on what they look like. Here I will post pictures of Muslims wearing all sorts of things in an attempt to refute that there is such a thing as “Muslim garb” or a Muslim look.
There are soldiers in uniform, and guys on the basketball court, and girls in sun dresses. There are fashionistas and folksingers and beauty queens. Guitarists and goalies and scullers. DJs and dervishes. Punks and cowboys. Some wear hijab and some wear gay pride flags. Also this lady and her snake, and this one with her graduated cylinder. Not to mention Dave Chappelle.
There is no such thing as “Muslim garb,” no dress code followed by every “devout Muslim,” and no way to successfully profile Muslims based only on on how they look standing in line. Harris ought to know this if he’s spent any time at all outside the bubble of white suburbia. Most importantly, he should know that Osama bin Laden was never the archetypical Muslim, and that we didn’t catch and kill bin Laden by pulling aside Muslim-looking guys. People who wear traditional clothing of their nation or ethnic group are not “dressed like Osama bin Laden.”
But, again, even if you could create a narrow rule to screen Muslims and only Muslims, it’d be dumb. You’d miss Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber and the folks who bomb abortion clinics. And you’d look right past Anders Breivik, though it seems Sam Harris would prefer you did just that.