The Security Hysteria and Discrimination

While reading through my RSS-feed today I came across a puzzling post by Sam Harris titled “In Defense of Profiling”. He talks about the way security treats people on airports and come to some strange conclusions about this.

Firstly, let me say a thing or two about my own experience with, and thoughts about, the underlying issue. In our post 9/11 world the fear of terrorism is with us stronger than ever. This is most evident in airports – naturally you may say, but I am far from certain it is natural or all that rational. Humans, through our evolution, are not designed to cope with high speed – nor are we particularly good at flying. The former we’ve gotten used to over the last century or two, the latter not so much; although statistically flying is about as safe as driving a car. Maybe it is to be expected that we are more paranoid about flying than driving a car?

Then there is terrorism. The first time I remember learning about this aspect of our world was when I was 11 and saw the news about the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. Then there were wars of cruelty only paralleled by the stories I read in the Bible … the world was appearing to me as a cruel place. Then I realised that the world simply just is a dangerous place, but the chances of these things happening to any given individual is fairly slim in our parts of the world. The privilege of living in the Western world. A privilege that also causes us to scare easily. Resulting in things like the security hysteria in airports.

Sam Harris discusses airport security through most of the post. He even tells a story of how he forgot some ammunition in his bag once and cleared the security check with no problem. This is not an unusual story in fact. I have done the same. I once went through airport security with a bag where 3 rifle shots were floating around under the bottom flap. I found them a while later. When my dad was in the army, a friend of him carried a live hand grenade in his pocket on a flight. Granted the security was probably more slack in the 70s. Not long ago a story in our local paper back home told about one guy doing a round trip with a large hunting knife that he had forgotten in one of the pockets of his backpack. These things happen all the time. Yet little kids have to have their sandals scanned for explosives on US airports. I’ve spent a lot of time on several US airports so far this year, and the security is incredibly tiresome and time consuming. True, it increases the chance of some random terrorist getting caught, but over the last decade since 9/11, how many potential acts of terrorism have they prevented?

I am with Sam Harris up to this point in his post, but now the disturbing bit in his conclusion follows. He thus concludes that it is therefore justified to target Muslims and otherwise suspicious looking people. A great qualifier for suspicious seems to be Muslim-y dressed.

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.
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, wouldn’t they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves?

Emphasis mine. That last sentence is particularly puzzling.

He goes on to point out that a “cleaned up” terrorist could be just about anyone. Evidently true, I’d say, by the example of our own Anders Behring Breivik – at least when not posing in one of his ridiculous uniforms. I also agree that harassing senior citizens who struggle to half undress in public in order to have their belt-buckles and shoes scanned, or suspecting children of blowing up at any second, is pretty ridiculous and unnecessary, but then concluding we should target instead individuals because they’re suspected Muslims is not only xenophobic, but plain ridiculous.

You know, the world is full of public places that are targets for terrorists. Plenty of these terrorists are white and/or Christian. It is the price we pay for living in the society we live in. Freedoms come at a price, and people will probably always exploit these freedoms to do evil. The solution is not less freedom and more suspicion, surveillance and oppression. To paraphrase our own prime minister after 22. July.

Sorry Sam. This is ridiculous. Your attempt at justifying xenophobia is not convincing at all. I very much enjoyed your book “Letter to a Christian Nation”, but you’ve lost me on this one …

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  1. Ani Sharmin says:

    Thanks for writing. (I got here via The Atheist Experience on Freethought Blogs.)

    Yeah, I thought he was being somewhat reasonable at first when he talked about kids or elderly people in wheelchairs being searched. It’s possible, of course, that they may be a threat (for example, someone threatening or manipulating a kid into doing something) but at least that was a defensible part of what he was saying. Then, he just went off the deep end and out-right advocated discrimination.

    I’ve enjoyed Harris’s writing when he’s pointing out why religion is wrong and so on, but then, when he makes suggestions about how to address the problems in Islam, he goes way too far and treats anyone who’s Muslim as an enemy. I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on that anymore.

    Also, can I just say: I love your penname. Jadzia’s one of my favorite characters in Star Trek.

    – Ani J. Sharmin

    1. Veronica says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      I remember when reading “End of Faith” that I thought he had a tendency to take things a little too far there too. I at least got a little uncomfortable when reading it.

      Also, yes, Jadzia is probably my favourite Star Trek character – being a female science officer and all :)

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