Airport Security: To Profile or Not to Profile? A Debate
Last month I posted a Page referencing a post by security expert Bruce Schneier called The Trouble With Airport Profiling. It was a rebuttal of an essay written by Sam Harris on his blog. Mr. Harris is a neuroscientist & author—therefore presumably a pretty smart guy—but he’s not a security expert.
It turns out that the rebuttal wasn’t the end of it. Mr. Schneier & Mr. Harris ended up having quite a long email debate about the subject—14,000+ words, in fact! I’ve only read the first couple of thousand words, but I’m hooked and fully intend to go find a comfortable spot where I can relax and read the rest as soon as I finish posting this.
What I find fascinating is not only the security concepts that come into play, but also the logical fallacies we tend to operate on that muddy the waters and can make us less secure, even though they seem to make sense. Security, from the perspective of a professional at least, clearly requires a different way of thinking, of looking at things.
I hope this will be of interest to both those who are concerned about terrorism & national security as well as those who enjoy a good debate. This is exactly the sort of discussion we need to be having nationally—rational, civil (if sometimes a bit prickly) exchanges that cut through emotion, bias, assumptions, politics and security “theater”, and get down to the nuts & bolts of logical, practical steps that can be taken to actually make us safer instead of just making us feel safer. The threats are very real and it’s high time we stopped letting demagogues & grifters scare us into acting against our best interests just so they can get re-elected or sell another book or DVD.
Below is the introduction to the exchange, by Sam Harris. (I’ve omitted the hyperlinks that are in the original.) Now please excuse me while I go get my iPad and find a comfortable spot to read in.
Oh, and by the way—the debate? My money’s on Mr. Schneier.
Introduction by Sam Harris
I recently wrote two articles in defense of “profiling” in the context of airline security (1 & 2), arguing that the TSA should stop doing secondary screenings of people who stand no reasonable chance of being Muslim jihadists. I knew this proposal would be controversial, but I seriously underestimated how inflamed the response would be. Had I worked for a newspaper or a university, I could well have lost my job over it.
One thing that united many of my critics was their admiration for Bruce Schneier. Bruce is an expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Bruce very generously agreed to write a response to my first essay. He also agreed to participate in a follow-up discussion that has now occupied us, off and on, for two weeks. The resulting exchange runs over 13,000 words.
This debate was conducted entirely by email, without a moderator. While the gloves came off early, Bruce and I permitted one another to modify previous statements and to insert comments into each other’s text. This occasionally complicated matters — requiring further work from the freshly injured party — but the resulting exchange is more temperate than it would have otherwise been, as well as more complete. Of course, there is only so much ripping and mending that a linear conversation can accommodate. And, as readers will see, Bruce and I still occasionally talk past one another, grow a little prickly, and leave important issues unresolved. Despite its imperfections, I think the following debate is a good example of how two people with very different perspectives on a controversial topic can engage in a rational conversation.* * *