On Knowing Your Enemy

May 7, 2012

I recently wrote a short essay about airline security (“In Defense of Profiling”) that provoked a ferocious backlash from readers. In publishing this piece, I’m afraid that I broke one of my cardinal rules of time (and sanity) management: Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I learned this the hard way once before, in discussing the ethics of torture and collateral damage, but this time the backlash has been even more unpleasant and less rational.

One idea that seems to unite many of my critics is that I am shamefully ignorant about how airline security actually works and about the means that terrorists can use to circumvent it. Many who were eager to educate me on these matters, or to find another way of declaring me an imbecile, recommended that I consult the work of Bruce Schneier. Whether well-intentioned or not, this was a useful piece of advice.

Bruce is an expert on security who has testified before Congress and has written and debated these issues for many major publications, including The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. He has repeatedly argued against profiling.

I invited Bruce to set me straight about airline security on this page, and he very generously accepted. He is writing a direct response to my article, which I will publish tomorrow. We will then discuss our differences in a subsequent post.

One line in my article raised a tsunami of contempt for me in liberal and secular circles:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

Once again, I included myself in this profile—but that did almost nothing to stem the accusations of racism.

Imagine that you work for the TSA and are executing a hand search of a traveler’s bag. He is a young man in his twenties and seems nervous. You notice that he is carrying a hardcover copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You pick up the book and ask him if he likes it. He now appears even more nervous than before. You notice something odd about the book—the dust jacket doesn’t seem to fit. You remove it and find a different book underneath. How do you feel about this traveler’s demeanor, and the likelihood of his being a terrorist, if the book is:

A. The Qur’an (in Arabic)

B. The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide

C. Overcoming Impotence: A Leading Urologist Tells You Everything You Need to Know

D. Dianetics

If you care more about A than B, C, or D, as I think you should, you are guilty of religious profiling (and calling it “behavioral profiling” doesn’t change this fact).

The funny thing about my “racism” is that I would probably be more concerned if the young man in this example were light-skinned, like me, than Middle Eastern. Why? Because he would have had to make a great effort to learn Arabic. Is there anything intrinsically sinister about learning Arabic? No. I wish I knew Arabic. But it is one more detail that fits the profile of someone who is deeply committed to the worldview of Islam and disposed to conceal that fact. Are all such people terrorists? Of course not. But every person who attempts to blow himself up on an airplane, now or in the foreseeable future, is likely to come from this group. Of course, if that changes, we should alter our view of security accordingly. If the Ku Klux Klan were to declare a broader war on civilization and begin a campaign of suicide bombings, we would have to keep an eye on that profile too (and being nonwhite or Jewish would help smooth your path through security).

In trying to understand the reaction to my essay, I think I have uncovered most of the assumptions at work in the minds of my critics. I believe that every one of these assumptions is false. To my surprise, a few people who have a reputation for being very intelligent, such as the biologist-blogger PZ Myers, appear to believe all of them:

1. Terrorism is just terrorism—there is nothing special about jihadists as a group, or suicide bombing as a tactic. When thinking about airline security, therefore, it makes perfect sense to put forward Timothy McVeigh (a non-Muslim terrorist) as an example of why any focus on Muslims is wrongheaded.

2. Furthermore, there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism.

3. Thus, any focus on the Muslim community is a sign of prejudice against dark-skinned people, Arabs, foreigners, or some other beleaguered minority.

4. And, in any case, it is impossible to tell whether someone is likely to be Muslim in the first place—there is no such thing as “looking Muslim” or “not looking Muslim.”

5. Focusing on people who could conceivably be Muslim would require ugly infringements of civil liberties—separate lines for dark-skinned people at the airport, for instance.

6. It would also allow terrorists to find another path through security—such as recruiting 80-year-old women from Okinawa to do their suicidal dirty work (though #4 tells us that there is no such thing as “looking Muslim,” so 80-year-old women from Okinawa look no less Muslim than anyone else). Random searches are actually more prudent than targeted ones because terrorists cannot game a random system.

7. And focusing on Muslims would prove so offensive to the Muslim community worldwide that it could increase Muslim support for terrorism (though #2 assures us that nothing about Islam makes this more likely than it would otherwise be; any group could be expected to support suicidal terrorism in response to being profiled).

8. If we had the resources, we would follow the Israeli approach to airline security, wherein no one is profiled on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, or gender. Rather, the Israelis attend only to a person’s behavior at the airport. “Behavioral profiling” is logically and empirically distinct from other sorts of profiling, and we should practice it alone.

The only assumptions on this list that stand a chance of being true are #6 and #7. Bruce Schneier appears to be very fond of #6, and I trust we will hear more from him about how terrorists can successfully game any system that profiles. But I don’t buy this argument, at least not yet, for reasons that we will probably discuss.

Assumption #7 does strike me as possible, though not likely. But this is just a statement about how terrifying Muslims have become worldwide: Don’t draw cartoons of their Prophet, or they’ll kill you. Don’t write a novel that could be considered blasphemous, or they’ll kill you. Don’t criticize their treatment of women, or they’ll kill you. Don’t leave the religion and publicly disavow it, or they’ll kill you. Don’t burn a Qur’an, or they’ll kill you. And if their vicious intolerance of civil discourse causes you to profile them at the airport, well, some who would not have otherwise thought to kill you will grow more insular and radicalized and, in the end, they will kill you too. I agree that a concern about alienating the Muslim community isn’t absurd—we desperately need Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement (i.e., to help profile within their own community)—but I’m not worried about creating more jihadists by simply taking intelligent steps to keep them off airplanes.

The Israelis have had a spotless record of airline security since 1972. It is widely imagined that they would never be so stupid as to profile people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or nationality. But this is just a pious fantasy. The Israelis have well-trained screeners who use all the information they can possibly glean to mitigate the risk of terrorism. Racial and ethnic profiling appears to be central to their process. I agree with many of my critics that we should emulate the Israeli approach insofar as it is possible. That would require smart, well-trained screeners who are empowered to use their discretion (i.e., to profile).

I have discovered that most secular liberals are quite unwilling to think in any detail about the threat we face in our “war on terror.” For instance, why should we be especially concerned about suicide bombing? Because it is much harder to prevent and tends to be much more destructive than ordinary bombing. People who want to get safely home after committing an act of terrorism are significantly restricted in what they can do, and they can be deterred in ways that aspiring martyrs cannot. Anyone determined to board an airplane and destroy it in flight is, by definition, a suicide bomber.

In my previous article, I linked to videos of young children being searched by the TSA (like this one). Ask yourself, What are TSA screeners doing when they search a toddler in this way? They are wondering whether the adults accompanying this child have decided to murder him along with everyone else in sight. Who would do such a thing? As it turns out, such people exist. Ask yourself, What percentage of these people are Muslim?

Some readers might think that this question would be difficult or impossible to answer. Let’s try another, then: What percentage of porn stars are also theoretical physicists? Is this a hard question for which to give a ballpark answer? No. In fact, I would be willing to bet my life that I could get within 10 percentage points of the exact figure without doing any research—and the same holds for the question about using children as bombs on airplanes in the year 2012. It is possible to make educated guesses of this kind with a high degree of confidence. In the context of airport security, this is “profiling” by another name.

The most pernicious and uncharitable way of parsing my remarks about Islam is to say that I believe that most (or all) Muslims are evil. The truth is, I don’t necessarily believe that any Muslims are evil—even jihadists. And this is what I find so troubling about the doctrine of Islam. Are most jihadists psychopaths devoid of empathy? I see no reason to think so. If you believe that the creator of the universe wants you to wage jihad against infidels, I think you can be perfectly healthy in psychological terms while becoming a suicide bomber. Secularists who doubt this seem to be the ones devoid of empathy, in fact: They are unwilling or unable to see the world through the eyes of our enemies—even when our enemies tell us, ad nauseam, exactly how they see the world. The most dangerous failing of secularism (and of moderate religion) is that its adherents cannot seem to grasp that some people really believe martyrdom is a path to Paradise.

Within a few hours of publishing “In Defense of Profiling,” I had lunch with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of my favorite people on earth. (Of course, I told her that I thought she should be profiled at the airport, and we had a good laugh about my “racism.”) What defenders of Islam refuse to acknowledge is that critics of this religion—especially those, like Ayaan, who were once Muslim and are now guilty of apostasy—have security concerns of a sort that critics of Judaism or Christianity haven’t had for centuries. Charges of “Islamophobia” in this context are nothing more than liberal masochism and denial. And the most ominous sign coming from the moderate Muslim community at this moment is that the majority of its members continue to deny that Islam warrants any special concern.

To see how the denial of the obvious has become a new article of faith for secular liberals, consider the response I received from Chris Stedman. In an article published in The Huffington Post, Stedman urged me to visit a mosque with him. This invitation was much celebrated online. Many people appear to believe that the remedy for my bigotry is for me to meet real Muslims—as though I have never met Muslims or doubted for a moment that most Muslims living in America are really nice people. This misses the point entirely.

Stedman’s article is worth reading. It is well written and earnest, and it reveals just how confused my fellow liberals are about Islam. Stedman is a gay, atheist, interfaith activist. As one person wrote on Twitter (@GadSaad)—“Wear a t-shirt stating ‘There is no God and I am Gay’ in Islamic countries and report back on your experiences.” This may seem like a cheap shot. It isn’t.

Consider the following challenge Stedman leveled at me:

An argument I frequently hear from atheists is that if moderate Muslims really exist, they need to speak out more. The problem is that Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? There. Are. So. Many. That. I. Can’t. Link. To. Them. All. (But those eleven are a good start.)”

This is a clever way to make the point—just hammer me with links and your readers will conclude that there is abundant evidence for Muslim moderation that I’ve ignored. Well, I clicked the first link and found the following within (I’m not kidding) 45 seconds:

In a section titled “Fatwas & Formal Statements by Muslim Scholars and by Muslim Organizations,” we find Abdullah, Sh. M. Nur, FCNA (U.S.) illuminating the fine points of “minority rights & apostasy” under Islam. After some genuinely misleading commentary on the general message of the Qur’an regarding freedom of belief, we find the following statement about apostasy (which, again, applies to my close friend Ayaan):

There are scholars who distinguish between apostasy on a personal level, which is not punishable by death, and apostasy that is accompanied by what we call today high treason, in which case the punishment is for high treason, not for apostasy.

However, some scholars do not distinguish between the two types. The issue pertains to the way of interpreting texts in the Qur’an and the Hadith that deal with that subject. A detailed answer to this question requires many more pages and Allah willing it will be made available in the future…. [A]nyone has the right to choose to convert to Islam or keep practicing his faith. But once a person converts to Islam, he should practice his faith and never change it. If he changes it, it is a major sin. Whether it is punishable by Islamic law is a debatable matter among Muslim scholars. Some believe he should be punished because they count this crime as betrayal, while others say that if someone changes his faith and does not challenge the Islamic society, they consider it a private matter between him and Allah and it is not punishable by the Islamic faith according to their view. However, both opinions agree that it is a sin punishable by Allah and that it is the worst form of sin.

On a website whose purpose is to bear witness to Muslim moderation, we learn that it is a matter of consensus that an apostate should be killed if he or she speaks publicly against the faith. I’m afraid I knew that already. Do I really need to follow the other 10 links?

Finally, most of my critics seem unable to imagine that the Muslim community in the West could ever be honest about the reality of airport security. For a glimpse of what such honesty might look like, consider the following email I received in response to my last blog post:


I’m an attorney in a very large firm here in the U.S. I’ve spent a good deal of my time over the past three years traveling for various cases and the airport has become a second home to me. I’m also constantly profiled. But not just at the airports, in multiple other locations and in various different ways.

When I travel, however, especially by plane, I want to feel safe. I do not want to be treated poorly, but if I absolutely had to choose, I’d opt for poor treatment over death-by-suicide-bomber. Thankfully, I haven’t had to choose and I’ve actually received neither (though there is one incident at the Philly airport I could have done without). The TSA does not harass me, but they do their job properly. To properly do their job, they need to keep an eye out and screen those who represent the most urgent, or at least the most obvious, threats. Because of my name, and my family background if I’m honest, I stand out as a likely candidate. Upon seeing me and placing a face with my name (Aamir Abbasi), my appearance does not scream “terrorist,” but it does not put your concerns to rest—I’m physically capable of being a threat and do not have the demeanor to assure one that I am not a threat.

However, I’m not a threat and I know this perfectly well, as do all my friends and co-workers. But if the authorities don’t take a closer look at me than the elderly woman you have pictured on your blog, they are surely not doing their job well. Based on the few minutes the TSA has to scrutinize me, there really is no way to determine that I am not a terrorist, and as you correctly point out, most terrorists we need to concern ourselves with in the U.S. at this particular time in history are Muslim terrorists.

Profiling is just common sense put into practice. To say otherwise demonstrates nothing more than a deluded view of political correctness. I’m sure your article has not helped with your popularity, but these difficult-to-swallow truths need [to be] advocated by someone. So, thanks.

Aamir Abbasi

I must say, receiving emails like this comes as a relief when my fellow secularists are falling all over themselves for a chance to put their feet in my mouth.