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To Profile or Not to Profile?
May 29, 2012 12:56 PM   Subscribe

To Profile or Not to Profile? A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier.
posted by brundlefly (150 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
As usual Harris can't handle someone with real facts.
posted by KaizenSoze at 12:59 PM on May 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yeah, I read this the other day. Harris comes up with overblown hypotheticals and anecdata bullshit, and Schneier calmy replies by talking about systems and their practical consequences.
posted by Len at 1:05 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harris is a courteous interlocutor, and is very generous (especially by the standards of the Internet) in giving Schneier the last word. The whole discussion is conducted by both parties with all the civility one could ask for. That's what makes it especially dispiriting to me that Harris still seems to think he's right at the end of the conversation, after Schneier has thoroughly, utterly, totally demolished Harris' position. I guess I knew that persuasion through reasoned discourse is less and less possible these days; I'm not sure why this brought it home to me more than numerous other examples one could cite.
posted by muhonnin at 1:14 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


(Sorry; I didn't mean that to sound quite as dismissive as it came across – it was a fascinating read exactly because of the differences between how they debated the topic at hand, and Schneier's analysis is, when extracted from the whole, a pretty brilliant bit of work.)
posted by Len at 1:16 PM on May 29, 2012


My problem with Sam Harris, demonstrated in one sentence:
You have delivered a litany of concerns about profiling that are (in my view) easily answered.
16 words that say exactly nothing except "I am convinced that I am right." Which is nice, I suppose.

I started to take apart his arguments from the very beginning, but there's really no point. Harris knows that he's right.
posted by muddgirl at 1:17 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


I just realized that until now I thought Bruce Schneier and Bruce Sterling were the same person.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:17 PM on May 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


I read this a couple of days ago. The whole thing goes backwards and forwards a few times, and Schneier ends up explaining the same thing ten different ways without conspicuous success in puncturing the truthiness of Harris' intuition. I think the point he is making is actually pretty clear near the start of the conversation:

Here's another correlation, perhaps easier to understand. Pilots have long complained about being subjected to the same security as everyone else. They can crash the planes, for heaven's sake. It's just common sense. But you can't actually sort on "being a pilot" at a security checkpoint; you have to sort on "wearing a pilot's uniform" or "carrying a valid pilot ID." So now the question becomes whether it makes sense to develop an unforgeable pilot ID, train TSA screeners in how to recognize that ID, and develop a separate set of screening procedures for people with that ID -- or simply screen pilots like everyone else and ignore their whining. And this is where the analysis starts.
Your intuition on the efficacy of an airport profiling system is wrong. The psychology of security is complex, and there is a great deal of of research about how our brains systematically get security decisions wrong. This is an example of that. Profiling at airports gives us less security at greater cost.


It costs more and takes more time to perform the theater that Harris wants. But it makes you feel so warm and fuzzy that the TSA is after the "right" people. Schneier may as well have been arguing with a brick wall.
posted by Jakey at 1:20 PM on May 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


I am amazed at Harris' insistence that our instinct to not only stereotype, but to believe strongly that those stereotypes are accurate, is a boon to security systems that should simply be unleashed from P.C. shackles. I mean, he writes:

. . . I would recommend the following exercise to our readers: Go to a public place -- a restaurant, coffee shop, shopping mall, or an airport -- where you can unobtrusively watch people go about their business, and see how much you can know about them just by looking. Ask yourself, what are the chances that those 20-year-old girls in yoga pants, buying frappuccinos, are taxidermists? What about the guy in his 40s, deeply tanned as though he never goes indoors, with tattoos covering both arms -- what are the chances he's a cardiologist? If you do this, you will begin to feel that you know the answers to these questions.

Yes, that's the whole problem! When an intelligent opponent is trying to deceive you, and knows your prejudices, does he really think it wise to just double-down on those same obvious biases?

Also, Sam, a suggestion: either stop lurking around Starbucks leering at girls in yoga pants, or stop talking about it online.
posted by inkfish at 1:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [15 favorites]


This is really embarrassing for Harris. Guy brought a knife to a gunfight.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:36 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course I'm aware that a terrorist could place a bomb in an old lady's bag -- and that is why I was careful to say that everyone's baggage should be screened. But it is very far-fetched to think that jihadist organizations will successfully recruit people of the sort pictured in my original blog post. And if we are concerned that terrorists might kidnap some old lady's grandchildren and force her to walk through security with a bomb in her girdle -- well, that's what behavioral profiling is for. Presumably, our screeners would find themselves in the presence of one very nervous old lady.

Yeah, and that is so, so rare at the airport, isn't it? A nervous old lady! Imagine that. It just doesn't happen, Bruce! Not unless her grandkids have been kidnapped and she has been strapped with explosives. We'll catch her like *snaps fingers* that!
posted by vidur at 1:37 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sam Harris is an incredibly weak thinker all-around; this is simply the latest example. Take, for instance, this sentence: "And I am not proposing a mere correlation between extremist Islam and suicidal terrorism. I am claiming that the relationship is causal." And everyone else asks (including Schneier, later), "How on earth is that relevant?" If you have even trouble telling what is relevant to the discussion and what isn't, maybe your thinking is at fault.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


$vidur =~ s/Bruce/Sam/gsex;
posted by freebird at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2012


Harris's lack of intellectual acumen speaks poorly of the UCLA graduate neuroscience program. They gave this bozo a PhD?
posted by exogenous at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


dammit you can tell I haven't done much perl lately can't you.
posted by freebird at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2012


As much as Harris says people need to question their religious beliefs, you'd think he might actually consider questioning his faith based security proposals.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:48 PM on May 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


Sam Harris is an incredibly weak thinker all-around; this is simply the latest example. Take, for instance, this sentence: "And I am not proposing a mere correlation between extremist Islam and suicidal terrorism. I am claiming that the relationship is causal." And everyone else asks (including Schneier, later), "How on earth is that relevant?" If you have even trouble telling what is relevant to the discussion and what isn't, maybe your thinking is at fault.

Really? Harris mentions the correlation. Schneier counters with: But so what? You’ve proposed a correlation between being Muslim and being a terrorist. I could propose other correlations with terrorism: wearing a gun, carrying a certain kind of reading material, having a certain micro-facial expression, appearing on a particular government list, buying a one-way ticket, holding a passport from a particular set of countries. There’s no shortage of correlations.

When the relationship is causal, Schneier's jab is countered. That's not relevant? Whatever.

Anyway, I'm going to check out of a thread that is surely going to be nothing but a bunch of undue insults hurled at Harris. "They gave this bozo a PhD", really? What is the matter with you people?

I'll just echo Sam's own advice to himself after the initial backlash. "Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself." Have fun, guys.
posted by King Bee at 1:49 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Second, we should acknowledge that certain travelers fit the profile so well that they are obviously Muslim, and others stand a very good chance of being Muslim, and these facts can be discerned by any trained screener simply by looking. Certain costumes and behaviors constitute ideological performances -- which is to say, we can know what a person believes, or is likely to believe, by his appearance alone.

I don't see any reason why we have to acknowledge this falsehood.
posted by vidur at 1:49 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm impressed by Schneier's ability to avoid getting bogged down by Harris' unverifiable assertions about how likely Muslims are to be terrorists. For example:

I have heard stories of women in niqabs breezing through security. What percentage of niqab wearers -- or, more important, the men traveling with them -- hope for a global Caliphate or believe that martyrdom is a direct path to Paradise? It is surely high. It is rather like asking what percentage of skinheads wearing swastika tattoos and "White Pride Worldwide" T-shirts are racist and anti-Semitic. If we were in a global war against a cult of suicidal white supremacists, one would have to be crazy not to pay extra attention to this distinguished gentleman at the airport.

There's a lot of wrong in there, but Schneier focuses on the key point that Harris is ignoring, that it's trivial for a well designed terror plot to avoid giving away obvious identifiers of being Muslim. His imagined skinhead terrorist would probably wear a wig and cover up his tattoos if he was going to blow up an airplane and airport security targeted skinheads.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:50 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


$vidur =~ s/Bruce/Sam/gsex;

Um, why? I was extending the quote from Sam, continuing to address it to Bruce.
posted by vidur at 1:52 PM on May 29, 2012


Sam Harris, and humans in general are terrible at judging risk. Think about this quote from Harris— "Half the families I see at the airport are obviously not waging jihad."

Bruce Schneier tries his hardest to educate Sam on how common sense is a terrible way to build a security system but Harris isn't listening, and unfortunately for us, neither are the politicians.
posted by Static Vagabond at 1:53 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


At the risk of ranting, I keep coming back to Harris':

I do not think that the problem we are discussing -- how to keep people from blowing up airplanes -- is as recondite or as complicated as you make it out to be.

Dude. Any strategy you choose must be mediated by heterogeneous local implementations as part of a vast and unpopular bureaucracy. Your adversaries are free to read your strategy in the papers, as well as to probe the profiling tendencies of individual airports, basically with impunity. Harris seems to utterly miss the point of Schneider's argument for simplicity -- you can either try to beat Vicini at his game of infinite regression, or build up an immunity to iocaine powder. Oh, except that making the dumb choice here has the added bonus of making your country seem even more racist than it already does.
posted by inkfish at 1:56 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Anyway, I'm going to check out of a thread that is surely going to be nothing but a bunch of undue insults hurled at Harris. "They gave this bozo a PhD", really? What is the matter with you people?

Well, all the logical arguments have already been debated by Harris and Schneier. We know how that debate ended. I find pointing and laughing at some excerpts the appropriate thing to do in this context, even as I look forward to more sensible comments from other MeFites.
posted by vidur at 1:58 PM on May 29, 2012


"Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself."

There's a lot I think is worth saying about Harris, actually (some good, some bad). But I'm going to take his advice and not say it myself.
posted by The World Famous at 1:59 PM on May 29, 2012


When the relationship is causal, Schneier's jab is countered.

Can you explain what you mean by this? Schneier's point is that from the perspective of a security screener, the reason for someone being a terrorist is not an aspect that the screener has any knowledge of. Why do you think the casual aspect matters in terms of designing a security system?
posted by burnmp3s at 1:59 PM on May 29, 2012


"They gave this bozo a PhD", really? What is the matter with you people?

This is an important point, actually. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time around PhDs knows better than to question that a bozo has been given a PhD.
posted by The World Famous at 2:00 PM on May 29, 2012 [18 favorites]


When the relationship is causal, Schneier's jab is countered.

Not really, though. Let's assume that every terrorist is a Muslim; that tells us next to nothing about whether or not any given Muslim is a terrorist. If you're designing a screening system, it really doesn't matter whether a relationship is a cause or a correlation. The only question you care about is how strong the relationship is.

I'm less than halfway through this, though, and most likely Schneier has said the same thing with greater clarity somewhere in this exchange.
posted by echo target at 2:02 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite part of this 'debate' is how Harris has to keep falling back on anecdotes. "This morning I saw a whole slew of WWII vets get secondary screened!" But he can't actually give any concrete numbers, even in an email exchange, even when challenged by Schneier. His answer is:
You have delivered a litany of concerns about profiling that are (in my view) easily answered. I do not think that the problem we are discussing -- how to keep people from blowing up airplanes -- is as recondite or as complicated as you make it out to be. It seems to me that there are many things you are pretending not to know -- or pretending that other people can't easily know -- that make the problem of preventing terrorism reasonably straightforward.
But that's a mischaracterization of Schneier's point, which was to spur Harris to investigate security systems for himself, rather than draw conclusions from his statistically tiny sample.
posted by muddgirl at 2:07 PM on May 29, 2012


When the relationship is causal, Schneier's jab is countered. That's not relevant? Whatever.

No, it isn't. Harris mentions one correlation. Schneier points out that there are many; why focus on one? His WHOLE POINT is that this ends up being way to complicated, for little benefit. Harris saying that it is causal is not answering Schneier's point at all. Causality is, in fact, irrelevant. All we need to do is show that

Pr(Terrorist | Profile) >> Pr(Terrorist),

and that the cost of assessing the profile is reasonable. Causality doesn't matter at all.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:11 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


My favorite part of this 'debate' is how Harris has to keep falling back on anecdotes. "This morning I saw a whole slew of WWII vets get secondary screened!"

There's nothing inherently wrong with that; reductio ad absurdum is a perfectly good technique of rational inquiry. Though I think Schneier has the best of this argument, your example above rasies a valid question; what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

Schneirer rightly takes Harris to task for assuming that simplistic metrics like ethnicity or appearance are good proxies for terrorism and thus a good basis for a security system, but on the other hand he's also argued at length against the uselessness of security theater and the idea that having everyone remove their shoes or abandon possession of anything in liquid form makes travel safer. He does need to say what sort of security system would be both safer and more convenient for air travelers - not specify it in complete detail, but articulate the principles on which it would operate and describe how it would typically function for the average passenger.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:18 PM on May 29, 2012


what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

What is the probability that a bunch of "Muslim-appearing people" are a vector for a terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

The real irony of this debate is that both Schneier and Harris seem to agree that TSA screenings are security theater, except Harris wants to take screenings one step farther towards ineffectiveness. Harris keeps trying to talk about behavioral screening (which Schneier rightly points out is a separate issue), but behavioral screening as practiced in the US seems to have the exact same problems that Schneier identifies with racial/religious screening - it's expensive and ineffective.

He does need to say what sort of security system would be both safer and more convenient for air travelers - not specify it in complete detail, but articulate the principles on which it would operate and describe how it would typically function for the average passenger.

Hasn't he been doing that for the past 10 years? I haven't read Beyond Fear, but he cites it several times when he talks about designing and evaluating security systems.
posted by muddgirl at 2:24 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Well, ineffective at catching people who want to blow up airplanes. Whether it is valuable to catch crackpots who are going to blow something else up is a secondary issue.)
posted by muddgirl at 2:25 PM on May 29, 2012


He does need to say what sort of security system would be both safer and more convenient for air travelers...

"I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks."
- Bruce Schneier 12/26/09
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

I'm sure the terrorists will be happy to know that dressing up as WW2 vets is a good strategy.
posted by The World Famous at 2:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

What is the probability that a bunch of "Muslim-appearing people" are a vector for a terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.


That's not the same as their being the same.

Hasn't he been doing that for the past 10 years?

No. I'm a big fan of Bruce Schneier, and agree with a great many of his criticisms, but he avoids arguments he doesn't want to deal with by narrowing the discussion and talking about what doesn't work. What positive steps does he favor, that are going to both yield greater efficiency (less time going through security theater for passengers) and maintain or improve security (higher probability of threat detection)?

I hate security theater, I agree with all of Schneier's criticisms of it. But I need a concrete alternative that I can advocate for, because arguments from ineffectiveness can always be answered with the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is a stupid argument that takes no account of actual probabilities, but that doesn't stop people trotting it out as a terminator argument (securocrats in this case, but also in lots of other contexts where it is equally spurious).
posted by anigbrowl at 2:36 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harris: For this reason, I have argued that we should profile for Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim, at airport security

So, does this mean "profile everyone" or "all Muslims are instantly recognizable as Muslim"?
posted by dubold at 2:41 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anigbrowl: But I need a concrete alternative that I can advocate for
I thought of something! Luggage in one plane and people in another.
All non-medically necessary items are luggage. We fly naked.
Or maybe we can wear nifty color coded jumpsuits provided from some automated computer system.
Then all the security officers have to do is verify that you have removed all personal items
and gotten into a properly provided bit of clothing.
A quick back scatter check with a bit of image processing software to recognize anomalies.
It goes beep you get flagged and tier-two screening commences.
If goes ping and a friendly contralto says, "The Computer is your friend, Citizen. Have a nice flight."
posted by bastionofsanity at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Though I think Schneier has the best of this argument, your example above rasies a valid question; what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.

Echoing Schneier and muddgirl above, the probability that a bunch of muslims are a vector for a terrorist attack is also vanishingly low. Consider this: I don't know how much you travel, but I travel a lot. I've seen a lot of people at airports. Let's say that you travel as much, or more, than me. In all likelihood, neither of us have ever seen a terrorist. In all likelihood, none of the TSA screeners we have interacted with have ever seen a terrorist. They have seen Muslims, though - lots and lots of Muslims. But never a terrorist. Given that "The number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines will increase 3.5% this year [2011] to 737.4 million" just in the US, and how many terrorists were on flights in 2011? 0? Maybe you know of some, but the main point is that the number of Muslims passengers are likely in the tens of millions, and the number of terrorists are in the single digits, if that. So even if we checked all the Muslims, finding a terrorist would be like winning the lottery.

Vanishingly small probability, indeed.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:46 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Harris: For this reason, I have argued that we should profile for Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim, at airport security

Seriously, is there anyone in the world who could not conceivably be Muslim?
posted by The World Famous at 2:50 PM on May 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm sure the terrorists will be happy to know that dressing up as WW2 vets is a good strategy.

The thing is, this is easier said than done. I would need to go to pretty elaborate lengths to disguise myself as a WW2 vet, such as making myself appear to be aged 80 or above rather than 41. The costs of perpetuating such an elaborate deception fall upon the would-be terrorist rather than upon the rest of the travelers.

Now, a more likely possibility is that terrorists kidnap the grandchild of a WW2 veteran and blackmail him into carrying an explosive device onto the plane. But if we apply a bit of game theory to this situation, we have to consider the likelihood that the terrorist will cooperate by releasing the hostage if the blackmailee cooperates by getting on the plane with a bomb. The payoff matrix is so heavily skewed towards mutual defection that such a plan is doomed to failure.

Personally, I'd prefer a system of background security combined with high-visibility random checking, so that 90-95% of the time, you'd just show your boarding pass and be done, but 5-10% you'd have highly visible interference, ranging from detention of individual incognito TSA agents to occasional delay of entire flights. In short, I'd make it arbitrary rather than universal, with the goal of being just disruptive enough to make the odds such for would-be terrorists. But that would cause problems of its own, both legal and technical.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2012


I would also point out that a randomly selected group of WWII vets is far more likely to have, at some point in their life, engaged in what we would now consider "terrorism" than a randomly selected group of Muslims.
posted by The World Famous at 2:54 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


The thing is, this is easier said than done. I would need to go to pretty elaborate lengths to disguise myself as a WW2 vet, such as making myself appear to be aged 80 or above rather than 41. The costs of perpetuating such an elaborate deception fall upon the would-be terrorist rather than upon the rest of the travelers.

Easy peasy - 80-year old terrorist puts on a VFW hat.
posted by The World Famous at 2:55 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I would also point out that a randomly selected group of WWII vets is far more likely to have, at some point in their life, engaged in what we would now consider "terrorism" than a randomly selected group of Muslims.

Everything is not the same as everything else.
posted by Right On Red at 2:59 PM on May 29, 2012


Granted that I haven't read a lot of Sam Harris. But I found it pretty frustrating how desperately he clung to an argument that Schneier just obliterated (in my opinion, of course).
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:01 PM on May 29, 2012


Harris: For this reason, I have argued that we should profile for Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim, at airport security.

Yeah, I'm kind of baffled by this, because that population pool is approximately everybody. He does know that not all Muslim women wear niqab or hijab, and that most Muslim men just look like...y'know, men, right? And even if this is Harris's way of saying "we should profile for brown people," well, that still leaves a giant hole in his profiling scheme. I'm from an Afghan immigrant family, and about half of us look vaguely ethnic at most, or not at all what is stereotypically considered Middle Eastern or Muslim, and there are plenty of other traditionally Muslim ethnic groups who are the same. Saying you should profile for Muslims is like saying you should profile for Christians: it's a laughably useless category considering that you can't guess someone's religion by looking at them, unless they're wearing obvious religious signifiers (a cross necklace, hijab, yarmulke, etc.).
posted by yasaman at 3:02 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


...unless they're wearing obvious religious signifiers (a cross necklace, hijab, yarmulke, etc.).

And surely any religionist bent on mischief would divest him or herself of such signifiers, leaving us with *drumroll* racial profiling. Yay?
posted by BrashTech at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Echoing Schneier and muddgirl above, the probability that a bunch of muslims are a vector for a terrorist attack is also vanishingly low.

Yes, but I am not trying to restate Harris's argument for ethnic profiling. The probabilities are low for different reasons: WW2 vets are both old and (presumably) patriotic (not necessarily, but let's assume they are for the sake of argument); some Muslims are extremist (echoing Schneier's stipulation, also for the sake of argument, that all terrorists are Muslim), but there are many many Muslims so we can't be sure which ones are extremist and which ones are not. Even though there is quantitative similarity, there is a significant qualitative difference.

I can see both sides of this. It is rather pointless to rely on picking out by their apparent religious affiliation, since Islamic terrorists can simply switch to using people who present as more secularly-minded (not to mention the failure to ID non-Islamic terrorists like Tim McVeigh or whoever). On the other hand, when I first left home in Ireland and moved to the UK in the late 80s, bombing campaigns by the IRA and other Irish nationalist organizations were in full swing, and I encountered a certain amount of official and social suspicion because of being Irish. I had visited the Soviet Union as a student before its dissolution, and that tended to get attention every time I crossed a border too. I wasn't thrilled about any of this extra attention, but on the other hand I couldn't really blame people for it. Sure, the likelihood that any individual Irish person is a terrorist is very low, but the likelihood that any terrorism carried out in the UK was carried out by or on behalf of Irish persons was very high indeed. there was a lot of terrorism going on at the time; I saw a car bomb go off once, and the only reason I'm here to tell you about it was that it was pouring rain and I stayed in my office for an extra 5 minutes to sneak a cigarette rather than get soaked in front of the entrance to the train station, where the car was parked.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:09 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thing that slays me about people who argue for profiling have never watched The Battle of Algiers when your argument can be easily disproved by a movie based on events sixty-odd years old you might want to find new arguments.
posted by winna at 3:10 PM on May 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


patriotic (not necessarily, but let's assume they are for the sake of argument)

Would you say Tim McVeigh was patriotic, in his own mind? I've met old men who would probably consider blowing up a plane to get that "mooslim out of the white house", if that's what it took. They'd consider themselves patriots.

Sam Harris is a racist twat, is what I took away from that exchange.
posted by maxwelton at 3:23 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Easy peasy - 80-year old terrorist puts on a VFW hat.

Sure - but how many 80-year-old terrorists are out there to begin with? I need to go dig it up, being I came across some research on crime prevention a while back which included the interesting observation that the vast majority of crime is committed by men under 40; perhaps because of andropause, once men reach middle each their probability of being a criminal plummets drastically. Again considering crime as a proxy for terrorism, we can correlate age with the probability of such anti-social activity. And while such a one-dimensional correlation is useless (for the reasons Schneier so ably explains), if we have several orthogonal correlations then we can begin to develop useful predictive models.

In my view, part of the problem with the current regime (which both Harris and Schneier would like to see ended) is that it imposes very high transactional costs on legitimate travelers, which is economically very inefficient. Not just air travelers; in San Francisco at least, subway station restrooms have been closed since 9-11 'due to heightened security.' you'd think that after a decade we'd have found a way to mitigate the risks of toilet bombers (quiet, you lot at the back), and in any case I'd rather that deadly explosions took place within restrooms rather than upon concourses, platforms, or in train carriages. Meanwhile, the public suffers from the loss of facilities and the economic activity associated with their maintenance.

We all agree that the cost of security as currently practiced substantially exceeds the benefit, but at least Harris is attempting to present an alternative with a better cost-benefit ratio. I think his proposal is hopelessly flawed, but I wish Schneier would work harder at articulating a better alternative.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:28 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harris: For this reason, I have argued that we should profile for Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim, at airport security.

Simply stunning, ANYONE could conceivably be Muslim, does he not understand what a Muslim is?
posted by Cosine at 3:28 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like what Harris proposed, provided there is a system of balances.

Lets start by granting the argument that a Muslim person is more likely to be a terrorist. It follows that Muslim looking people get screened, the more Muslim they look the more they get screened.

Now lets find out what type of person has an average probability of being a terrorist. Lets say it is Christians. Christians don't have to remove their shoes, but they still go through the back scatter scanner.

Who are the people who have the lowest probability of being terrorists? Jainists and Quakers don't even need to show a boarding pass. They all get upgraded to first class and get the keys to the executive lounge.

That way, if I don't tan for a few months and shave my beard I will get at least business class. I look quite white and christian, unless I speak and make you realize I am a Mexican, probably Catholic, who will only steal the pilot's job if allowed on the plane.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 3:33 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure Harris is a racist twat. He's a contrarian who is typically more interested in debating a premise than in discussing an issue in order to gain greater insight. He is part of a field of professional contrarians and anti-religion debaters who, as far as I can tell, are successful primarily because their writing and speaking is targeted at a dedicated audience so convinced that it has a monopoly on reason and truth that it is justified in using false premises, dishonesty, and bad logic to advance the goal of destroying its unreasonable opponents. Harris and his colleagues in the professional atheist community are so accustomed to starting with the assumption that they are right and all other views are stupid that they (and Harris in particular) sometimes get tripped up when they apply that same modus operandi in other settings.
posted by The World Famous at 3:39 PM on May 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


Would you say Tim McVeigh was patriotic, in his own mind?

You did read the second paragraph of my comment, right? The one where I acknowledged the existence of people like Tim McVeigh?
posted by anigbrowl at 3:41 PM on May 29, 2012


but I wish Schneier would work harder at articulating a better alternative.

Schneier's alternative is no or minimal airport screening, like we do with trains, subways, boats, etc. Considering the TSA has, reportedly, caught no terrorist attacts in progress (while US intelligence services, flawed as they are, have nipped several such attempts in the bud), I think he probably has a point.

primarily because their writing and speaking is targeted at a dedicated audience so convinced that it has a monopoly on reason and truth that it is justified in using false premises, dishonesty, and bad logic to advance the goal of destroying its unreasonable opponents.

This seems pretty unfair to the majority of Harris's audience, which has consistently and thoroughly repudiated Harris's flawed logic on this issue across the skeptical sphere (despite Harris's claims to the contrary).
posted by muddgirl at 3:49 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the link: Bruce and I permitted one another to modify previous statements and to insert comments into each other's text.

I read that as "to insert commas into each other's text" and thought, "What the fuck, commas? Drop that motherfucker! Put him down! You want to just insert commas in someone else's text, no way! You're dead, asshole!"

That kind of thing is clearly much worse than terrorism.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 3:58 PM on May 29, 2012


This seems pretty unfair to the majority of Harris's audience, which has consistently and thoroughly repudiated Harris's flawed logic on this issue across the skeptical sphere

Sorry if I was unclear. I was referring to the target audience of professional atheist contrarians in the context of those specific topics.
posted by The World Famous at 4:02 PM on May 29, 2012


Schneier's alternative is no or minimal airport screening, like we do with trains, subways, boats, etc. Considering the TSA has, reportedly, caught no terrorist attacts in progress (while US intelligence services, flawed as they are, have nipped several such attempts in the bud), I think he probably has a point.

So do I, but then you run into the problems of a) paranoid people wondering where the security it and OMFG FOREIGNERS LAUGHING IN SCARY FOREIGN LANGUAGE STOP THE PLANE LET ME OFF and b) anxiety/paranoia about the government's covert security screening methods. And it doesn't really address c) making it quite easy to actually carry out an attack.

This last is the real problem. On September 11, for example, you had 19 hijackers taking over 4 planes with boxcutters. Well, by the time the 4th one was taken over the passengers knew what was going on, attacked the terrorists, and although everyone died at least the plane went down in a field rather than into the dome of the Capitol. So (the argument goes) that line of attack will never work again because the passengers would interfere.

Except I can think of plenty of ways to make that work again that could be carried out easily if there were no security screening and no other up-front security measures. For example, bring on bottles of nauseating chemicals disguised as soft or alcoholic drinks. Terrorists consume an antidote ahead of time, open their bottles and pour liquid, everyone else on the plane starts puking or shitting themselves, terrorists take over the plane during the confusion.

When I say that Schneier should articulate positive alternatives, I'm thinking of easy-to-understand things like "lockable double cockpit doors, all cockpits outfitted with tasers, and one way switches to ground-based fly-by-wire." In other words, an alternative that addresses the specific preventive measures that would come into play if someone tried to take advantage of our (superficially) lax security - it becomes more diifficult to even enter the cockpit, easier to defend against intrusion if that does happen, and as a last-ditch measure if the plane actually does get hijacked, the hijackers will be technically unable to fly it towards their target of choice. All of these measures could be circumvented in theory, but it would be difficult to do and require such elaborate planning that advance detection would be more likely. This, too, is sort of security theater, but at least it provides an extremely specific answer to a good number of 'what if....' scenarios.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:33 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


For example, bring on bottles of nauseating chemicals disguised as soft or alcoholic drinks. Terrorists consume an antidote ahead of time, open their bottles and pour liquid, everyone else on the plane starts puking or shitting themselves, terrorists take over the plane during the confusion.

What part of current screening prevents this from happening already? Since we're positing 16 terrorists, that's a lot of 3-oz bottles.

When I say that Schneier should articulate positive alternatives, I'm thinking of easy-to-understand things like "lockable double cockpit doors, all cockpits outfitted with tasers, and one way switches to ground-based fly-by-wire."

Again, you are positing that Schneier hasn't already done this, countless times, since 9/11. He has a website and several published books.
posted by muddgirl at 4:39 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry, 19.
posted by muddgirl at 4:39 PM on May 29, 2012


arguing against bruce schneier about security is like arguing against Algebra. (invention of the muslims! check that y for boxcutters!)

he does restaurant reviews, though, too. i'm pretty sure sam could take him on that.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 4:49 PM on May 29, 2012


When I say that Schneier should articulate positive alternatives, I'm thinking of easy-to-understand things like "lockable double cockpit doors, all cockpits outfitted with tasers, and one way switches to ground-based fly-by-wire."

Cockpit doors are already lockable and armored. And here is Shneier expressing his view on practical measures:
I’ve repeatedly said that exactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. Those two things have no effect on privacy. Security measures that affect privacy, like ID checks, haven’t made us any safer.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:57 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


What part of current screening prevents this from happening already?

I'm not endorsing the current regime, although I do think it has some deterrent value (but not enough to outweigh the much higher costs it imposes on legitimate travelers).

Again, you are positing that Schneier hasn't already done this, countless times, since 9/11. He has a website and several published books.

I have been following Schneier's contributions for years. I say he is much better at pointing out the flaws in our current security regime than articulating a convincing alternative that is likely to satisfy the general public's demands for both convenience and safety. Talking about how great the security is behind the scenes can only take you so far; you also need to address people's anxieties by having some well-defined security measures that are obviously hard to circumvent.

Put it this way, how confident would you be about leaving your money in a bank that had large piles of cash sitting around in plain view, with the assurances from bank staff that there was a lot of discreet security and they hadn't been robbed recently? In today's world, bank vaults and armored vehicles serve a symbolic function as much as a practical one, but you'd probably feel funny about depositing your money in a place that didn't seem to have any security.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:01 PM on May 29, 2012


His thoughts were red thoughts, thank you. I was just about to link to that.
posted by vidur at 5:01 PM on May 29, 2012


Cockpit doors are already lockable and armored. And here is Shneier expressing his view on practical measures:

I know that. That was why I mentioned them in the context of 3 further levels of physical security. Because, as evidenced by the not-infrequent scares where paranoid passengers report someone foreign and suspicious, this measure alone is not sufficient to allay people's genuine fears.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:03 PM on May 29, 2012


People, you don't have to find a WWII veteran you can turn to your cause or even an 80 year old who is loyal to the cause and have him dress up as a veteran. All you have to do is get someone who is loyal to the cause a job emptying bedpans at a veterans home somewhere and have him set up a real veteran with a wheelchair that is packed full of semtex. Duh!

Now sure, I'm on par with any highly trained special forces operative (if by highly trained special forces operative you mean a guy who spent a lot of time watching action/adventure movies on Cinemax in the 80's and once went jogging). So, if I can come up with a way to exploit this example of a safe class of individuals in ≈30 seconds (and they're not going to know they're being exploited so good luck with your behavioral screening) I think it's fair to say that Harris really didn't think this through very well.

I mean imaging what someone who had all the premium channels might be capable of!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:03 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I say he is much better at pointing out the flaws in our current security regime than articulating a convincing alternative that is likely to satisfy the general public's demands for both convenience and safety.

Do we want better security theater even if it comes at the cost of poorer security? There are only so many resources we can throw at any given problem. I would prefer better security, and perhaps a better information campaign, to benefit from those limited resources. I can get good theater at plenty of other venues.
posted by vidur at 5:09 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Traveling by air with a wheelchair:
a leaking battery inflight can be dangerous. It will be necessary for baggage handlers to remove the battery and place it in a special container. This requires the passenger to be at the airport at least 3 hours before departure.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:09 PM on May 29, 2012


anigbrowl, apart from armouring cockpits and passengers fighting back, Shneier has often said that security theatre/airport screening doesn't provide good security outcomes, that airports are the last and not the best line of defence, and that what actually achieves the best security outcomes is investigation, intelligence and legwork.

I don't know how much more clear he can be on what practical measures can be taken. This essay is the most comprehensive expression of his position on this issue I can find (much better than my last link, with respect to which I was a bit hasty).

Because, as evidenced by the not-infrequent scares where paranoid passengers report someone foreign and suspicious, this measure alone is not sufficient to allay people's genuine fears.

Nothing will allay the fears of those people, because they are not based on actual security considerations, but rather on irrational prejudices and preconceptions.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Politician's syllogism:
1. We must do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we must do this.
posted by vidur at 5:42 PM on May 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


Use the "normal hand-propelled chair". A pound of Semtex would be more than enough, at least according to the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing investigation (CNN was part of my elite training) and I think you could get that, plus some batteries and a little timer or something into one of the major frame components of a normal wheel chair.

Or if the TSA starts looking real carefully at wheelchairs, do something different. This is another thing that Schneier goes on about - security policies that will stop precisely one movie plot. If I can work this stuff out while trying to use the bathroom and get a drink before the commercial is over, I think we have to assume that the bad guys can as well.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:57 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I say he is much better at pointing out the flaws in our current security regime than articulating a convincing alternative that is likely to satisfy the general public's demands for both convenience and safety.

Actually one of his major contributions to the debate has been in pointing out that there is no reason to assume that satisfying these two demands simultaneously is even possible. That's the whole point of "security is a trade-off". You can have absolute safety in the skies, as Schneier has repeatedly said: just ground all the planes.

This whole debate gets distorted unless we accept that one possible conclusion of it is that if you want it to be easy to fly, you are going to have to tolerate occasional horrifying terrorist incidents. We shouldn't resign ourselves to that conclusion prematurely, but we shouldn't rule it out from the start, either.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:58 PM on May 29, 2012


Well, heck, we've managed to resign ourselves to road accidents as an acceptable price for ground transport, and traffic fatalities run to more than ten times the 9/11 death toll every year...
posted by baf at 6:08 PM on May 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nothing will allay the fears of those people, because they are not based on actual security considerations, but rather on irrational prejudices and preconceptions.

But they can still hold up a flight by making a fuss. You want sufficiently obvious crude-but-useful measures in place on airports and on planes for airport and flight staff to point out, because telling fearful people to put their faith in 'investigation, intelligence and legwork' isn't very effective. That's like saying you have a rock that keeps away tigers, and you know it works because there's no sign of tigers. Up to a point, deterrence has some security value, and simplicity and visibility are characteristic qualities of deterrence.

This whole debate gets distorted unless we accept that one possible conclusion of it is that if you want it to be easy to fly, you are going to have to tolerate occasional horrifying terrorist incidents.

Yes, but it would help if we started looking at alternatives along the indifference curves instead of just the ends. I think there are other options besides 'TSA all the way' and 'ground all planes'. Harris is arguing for less universal screening but a bit more applied to one subgroup (apparent Muslims), which is flawed, as discussed. I'm advocating less universal screening but some more prominent technical measures, and there are flaws with that approach too. Schneier is saying 'let real security experts take care of it, and just don't worry your little heads about it,' and there are some flaws with that approach too.
posted by anigbrowl at 6:22 PM on May 29, 2012


Bruce Schneier: I have always thought that the "war on terror" metaphor was actively harmful to security because it raised the terrorists to the level of equal combatant.

I haven't read enough of Schneier to know if he's said that before, but that is absolutely 100% spot on. I really wish that attitude had been more widely adopted in the last decade.
posted by Loudmax at 7:08 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


anigbrowl: "Up to a point, deterrence has some security value, and simplicity and visibility are characteristic qualities of deterrence."

That's what the metal detector and random explosives swabs were (and are) for. For some reason we decided not to use the one "advanced" checkpoint scanner that actually did something useful, so we're pretty much left with the same security we had pre-9/11, just with added nude photos and molestation. I'm not quite sure why it is necessary to degrade passengers to allow them on flights, but that seems to be our strategy.
posted by wierdo at 7:12 PM on May 29, 2012


Schneier is saying 'let real security experts take care of it, and just don't worry your little heads about it,' and there are some flaws with that approach too.

No, Shneier is saying that real security outcomes may not be compatible with pandering to ignorant idiots, and that the pandering is pointless from a security perspective, and extremely expensive to boot.

How about a bit of public education to correct misconceptions, rather than the high tech rocks to keep the tigers away?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:28 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well this contrarian, illogical and dishonest Harris-fan (thanks, The World Famous, I love you too) thinks that on this issue Harris is wrong, wrong, brimming over with wrongability. His justifiable opposition to theocracy might have led him to extrapolate to this stupid conclusion, or maybe he's racist, I don't know. It's disappointing to see him clinging to his opinions when the facts are so obviously pointing in the opposite direction. But I've never looked to Harris as any kind of moral leader or expert on national security, so I guess I'll put this on the pile with all the other mistakes made by experts when they theorise outside of their own field.

Any recommendations for a Schneier reading list?
posted by harriet vane at 7:47 PM on May 29, 2012


anigbrowl: It's quite simple, actually, and it happens all the time here in NYC. When someone has a freakout on a subway train, they are escorted off the train and the rest of the passengers continue on their journey. I don't see why the same couldn't happen on a plane.

We as a civilization and society do all sorts of things that large swaths of of our members think is patently ridiculous, but is never the less effective. I wouldn't trade effectiveness for the same of alleviating someone's neurotic anxiety about fluoridation of the water or high tension power lines, and frankly, we especially shouldn't do the same for terrorism simply because that particular anxiety is the expressed goal and purpose of terrorism itself.

Schneier isn't saying "don't worry your little heads about it". Instead, he is saying we shouldn't let the most terrorized among us determine our response to terrorism.
posted by Freen at 8:29 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


s/same/sake/g
posted by Freen at 8:31 PM on May 29, 2012


No, Shneier is saying that real security outcomes may not be compatible with pandering to ignorant idiots [...] How about a bit of public education to correct misconceptions

12% of Americans still think the president is a Muslim. Unfortunately, there are too many dumb people for us to ignore their effect on the economy if they are too spooked to travel. Certainly I would rather not pander to them either, but these are the same people that don't bother to read product manuals or exercise common-sense safety procedures, which is why every power tool I buy has to have 5 different safety labels.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:59 PM on May 29, 2012


I think we also need to consider what kind of action would be defined as "effective" by a terrorist group. 9/11 was effective in that it made Americans frightened, and to allay that fear, the TSA was invented and now we have to take off our shoes at airports.

I can't be the first guy to think that -- were I a terrorist -- I would wait until one of the busiest travel days of the year (maybe December 26? Whatever is busiest, and after a holiday, when people are trying to go home after vacations and whatnot,) and then have three or five guys strap themselves with explosives and simultaneously blow themselves up in the middle of the line for the metal detectors. An hour later every single airport in America is shut down, and thousands of people are stranded with no way to get back to their homes and jobs.

This would be especially effective because: how do you secure against that? Metal detectors at the beginning of the lines for the metal detectors?

This isn't as dramatic a terrorist action: there's probably never been a more dramatic piece in the history of television than the towers getting hit and falling. But it would still be effective in that it would shut down the US infrastructure and also scare the living shit out of Americans. But either way, no amount of current airport security would be able to stop it.
posted by nushustu at 9:01 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


If I'm not mistaken, the current approach is to arrest nushustu for even suggesting such a thing, thereby ensuring continued safety for us all.
posted by ceribus peribus at 9:27 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


12% of Americans still think the president is a Muslim. Unfortunately, there are too many dumb people for us to ignore their effect on the economy if they are too spooked to travel. Certainly I would rather not pander to them either, but these are the same people that don't bother to read product manuals or exercise common-sense safety procedures, which is why every power tool I buy has to have 5 different safety labels.

If you would rather not pander to an irrational minority, I think you should do exactly that and not advocate the opposite.

The comment just below yours lays out a scenario that would spook plenty of people away from air travel if it were to ever come true. So, should we then create a new agency to screen people before the TSA screening? But that just pushes the crowd a few yards away and the target remains the same. It's metal detectors all the way down.
posted by vidur at 9:45 PM on May 29, 2012


I still haven't figured out why terrorists couldn't conceal explosives in their rectums. It seems obvious to me and the TSA response would essentially shut down air travel.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:45 PM on May 29, 2012


My plan for safe travel: x-rays for hand luggage, suitcases and freight; metal detectors for passengers. This reduces or eliminates the casual transport of guns and knives inside the passenger compartment, and it reduces or eliminates the transport of dangerous goods into the freight compartment. My plan prevents random accidents caused by bozos with guns or attacks by crazy people with knives, and things like propane tanks exploding in flight. It's probably no worse at detecting exploding underwear than the present system.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:03 PM on May 29, 2012


If you would rather not pander to an irrational minority, I think you should do exactly that and not advocate the opposite.

You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational. You can mitigate those concerns without building your entire security policy around them, as in the technical measures I suggested above. It's not as wasteful or inefficient as the current TSA regime, but it's more directly responsive to individual flyers' concerns than blanket assurances. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that there are multiple security safeguards in place on every single plane, because people's understandable concern about air security when traveling is narrowed down to the flight they are actually boarding.

The comment just below yours lays out a scenario that would spook plenty of people away from air travel if it were to ever come true.

Indeed, but only temporarily. Unprecedented global visibility was a key aspect of 9/11. It's not just about numbers; as someone pointed out, vehicle accidents kill far more Americans in the aggregate than terrorists do. There have been a lot of train/subway bombings in London, but they don't stop people going to work.

I still haven't figured out why terrorists couldn't conceal explosives in their rectums.

They have. Fortunately, the amount of explosive that will fit and the shock absorbency of the body it's hidden inside limit the destructive radius.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:10 PM on May 29, 2012


You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational.

You only get to ignore the concerns of over 40% of the electorate if they seem rational. Like gay marriage and drug laws.

If only some well connected company could sell gay marriage license printers to the government for half a million each, or a privatized bong inspection agency that employs thousands of people was created, then things would be different.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 11:17 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Mental Wimp: I gave this a bit of thought, along with the news that went around a while ago that Yemeni groups were experimenting with surgically implanting explosives. There are a couple of problems with explosive devices that are internal to the body. For one thing, whether you're sewing it up inside the torso or storing it where the sun don't shine, there isn't too much material you can fit in the chosen cavity before it starts to impair the health of your carrier. That limits the explosive payload you can get away with before it becomes a detection risk, and that's before you even try to get cute by surrounding it with ball bearings or metal shards.

The bigger problem is that you've got your comparatively small bomb surrounded by dense but squishy muscle tissue and bone. That's going to absorb a fair amount of the blast. The same principle applies in bomb-disposal to something like this, which is basically a tent you drop over a bomb and then fill with foam. And that doesn't even consider how you manage to detonate the thing. An implanted radio antenna, timer or altimeter (Not a pressure altimeter: being sealed in meat in a pressurized airplane cabin wouldn't make it very effective, but a GPS altimeter might work assuming you could get a small enough antenna.) wouldn't show up on the vaunted porno-scanner, but it would almost certainly require components that would trigger a magnetometer. The implanted bombs were supposed to be triggered with a chemical reaction, but that seemed to require the bomber to inject themselves with a syringe.

On preview, as anigbrowl points out, suicide bombers with internal explosives don't seem to be very lethal to those around them. But they are terrifying, which is certainly part of the point.

If anyone would like to disabuse me of the notion that you couldn't fit a large volume of explosives in a rectum, please feel free to suppress that desire.
posted by figurant at 11:31 PM on May 29, 2012


You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational.

Why not? Should we investigate Obama to determine whether he is in fact a lizard person? Or establish a timecube strategy? Putting in place ineffective security measures to counter the unjustified irrational fears of a vocal ignorant minority simply doesn't stand up to a costs/benefit analysis.

They have. Fortunately, the amount of explosive that will fit and the shock absorbency of the body it's hidden inside limit the destructive radius.

Incidentally, full body scanners are not capable of detecting an internal object.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:31 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational.

I totally understand that politicians don't get to ignore such concerns, however invalid they may be. But we totally can, and should do that, and raise the quality of discussion about such important issues.
posted by vidur at 11:33 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


On preview, as anigbrowl points out, suicide bombers with internal explosives don't seem to be very lethal to those around them. But they are terrifying, which is certainly part of the point.

If you have plastic, malleable explosives concealed in your rectum, and you make it through security, there's nothing to stop you from, ahem, 'removing' them in the bathroom and then detonating them.

Not sure whether the amount of explosive in question could crash the plane if detonated in the cabin.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:35 PM on May 29, 2012


Should we investigate Obama to determine whether he is in fact a lizard person? Or establish a timecube strategy?

Planning a cheese mining factory on the Moon should be a priority, I think. The price is too damn high.
posted by vidur at 11:36 PM on May 29, 2012


Planning a cheese mining factory on the Moon should be a priority, I think. The price is too damn high.

You say that now, but what about the massive healthcare costs associated with treating 'dairy lung' in cheese miners? That will get factored into the price of space cheese.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:54 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational.

Why not? Should we investigate Obama to determine whether he is in fact a lizard person?


I told you: if the irrational 10-15% of the population drastically curtail their economic activity, including travel, it costs all of us. So there is a valid reason for addressing their concerns, within reason, even if we think those concerns are overblown. I've proposed reasonable and fairly simple solutions that address both practical and psychological considerations. I'm arguing for much less security theater, but just enough to refute complaints that security measures are visibly lacking. It's like any proposal short of 'abolish all visible signs of airport security' is viewed as a capitulation to the forces of stupid. Sheesh.

They have. Fortunately, the amount of explosive that will fit and the shock absorbency of the body it's hidden inside limit the destructive radius.

Incidentally, full body scanners are not capable of detecting an internal object.


And the threat potential of internally-fitted explosive devices is extremely limited, for the reasons given. So what? I'm not promoting the use of full-body scanners, so why are you bringing it up?
posted by anigbrowl at 12:01 AM on May 30, 2012


I only got about 1/3rd of the way through this, but it feels a lot like a high-schooler being somehow accidentally given a degree-level exam paper - he doesn't have the knowledge necessary to even understand what the questions are really about but he sees some stuff he recognises, gives it a damn good try, and comes out feeling OK about it. And fails completely.
posted by dickasso at 12:03 AM on May 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


vidur: The comment just below yours lays out a scenario that would spook plenty of people away from air travel if it were to ever come true.

anigbrowl: Indeed, but only temporarily. Unprecedented global visibility was a key aspect of 9/11. It's not just about numbers; as someone pointed out, vehicle accidents kill far more Americans in the aggregate than terrorists do. There have been a lot of train/subway bombings in London, but they don't stop people going to work.

Just so we are clear on this: some people being too spooked to travel was your concern, not mine. I was just responding to that concern by pointing out (thanks to the helpful example by nushustu) that any amount of security theater will not be enough to address those concerns.

Having said that, I think I've run out of things to say (and I didn't have a lot to begin with). We can agree to disagree on exactly where we would draw the line about security theater ("much less security theater, but just enough", as you put it).
posted by vidur at 12:11 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fortunately, the amount of explosive that will fit and the shock absorbency of the body it's hidden inside limit the destructive radius.

You are extrapolating from an explosion on the ground to one in a sealed aircraft. I'm pretty sure that if a Boeing 747 is insufficient to withstand the explosion caused by 13 oz of Semtex, a Boeing 747 plus someone's torso is not going to fair noticeably better with the full pound of Semtex in your example. The article you link says as much.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:14 AM on May 30, 2012


We can agree to disagree on exactly where we would draw the line about security theater ("much less security theater, but just enough", as you put it).

Can I jump on board this diplomacy train too, please?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:19 AM on May 30, 2012


Sam Harris is an idiot. Everything I've ever heard come out of his mouth has been moronic.
posted by delmoi at 2:07 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way: Here's a simple argument against racial profiling: What prevents terrorists from just putting on makeup to look like they belong to a different ethnic group? Certainly, if they can learn how to build bombs and whatnot, they could learn to do cinematic makeup
posted by delmoi at 2:14 AM on May 30, 2012


Imagine if they profiled for white collar crime..
posted by srboisvert at 3:11 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two things:

If you think that there is no currently no profiling going on because of political correctness &c., and that the TSA is spending all their time searching small children and WWII veterans, then you don't know anybody who 'looks' obviously Middle Eastern/has a Middle Eastern last name. Seriously, one friend of mine makes jokes about always being 'randomly' selected for a search every time he flies.

Launching one of these attacks is obviously super difficult, incredibly expensive, &c. Do you really think that somebody who is going to go through that much planning to launch an attack is going to use somebody wearing a hijab? They didn't even do that for the original 9/11 attacks!
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:07 AM on May 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


anigbrowl: "You don't get to ignore the concerns of 10-15% of the electorate even if they seem irrational. "

You seem to misunderstand our form of government. We do not operate by universal assent. We don't even require 50% of the electorate to support something to have it done (or not done), only some varying number of their elected representatives or unelected bureaucrats.

Even discounting that, your argument fails. The irrational cannot be placated. If they could be, they would not be irrational. Or, if you prefer, I suspect 10% of our population is afraid of monsters under their bed. Shall we put night vision cameras under everyone's bed to make sure the monsters don't get them?
posted by wierdo at 4:09 AM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I do not think that the problem we are discussing -- how to keep people from blowing up airplanes -- is as recondite or as complicated as you make it out to be. (from Sam Harris)
Wow, So Sam Harris' argument, to world renown security expert (probably the most well known security expert in the world) is that security doesn't seem as complicated as he's making it

I mean, if some creationist were debating Dawkins and said "I don't think this biology stuff is as complicated as you're making it out to be!" over some point the wrongness would be obvious to him. But he apparently doesn't think that security is science, or can be studied in a scientific way.

It goes beyond being dumb, it's straight up contempt for intellectualism and expertise
----
The costs of perpetuating such an elaborate deception fall upon the would-be terrorist rather than upon the rest of the travelers.-- anigbrowl
Um, hello? They are already going through the trouble of sneaking a bomb on the plane in an attempt to blow themselves up. They are already sacrificing their lives. But you think putting on a disguise is too much work?
The probabilities are low for different reasons: WW2 vets are both old and (presumably) patriotic (not necessarily, but let's assume they are for the sake of argument); some Muslims are extremist-- anigbrowl
We aren't talking about actual world war two vets. We are talking about people who look like world war 2 vets. All you have to do is put on a fucking costume and either be old or put on some makeup!


You don't seem to appreciate the fact that people can change their appearance thus, any attempt to prevent terrorism by profiling by appearance will fail. Not might fail, will.
Would you say Tim McVeigh was patriotic, in his own mind? I've met old men who would probably consider blowing up a plane to get that "mooslim out of the white house", if that's what it took. They'd consider themselves patriots. -- maxwelton
The FBI recently did a Sting against some old, white racists who were plotting a terror attack in a wafflehouse. Earning them the logical moniker The Waffle House Terrorists (Not clear that they'd ever do anything, but that never mattered with the Muslims they'd caught the same way).
Except I can think of plenty of ways to make that work again that could be carried out easily if there were no security screening and no other up-front security measures. For example, bring on bottles of nauseating chemicals disguised as soft or alcoholic drinks. Terrorists consume an antidote ahead of time, open their bottles and pour liquid, everyone else on the plane starts puking or shitting themselves, terrorists take over the plane during the confusion.-- anigbrowl
Like someone else said. That plot would work even if all the terrorists were screened. Except, they wouldn't be able to get into the cockpit due to the locked door that's already there. So screening is totally irrelevant to whether or not that attack would succeed.
how confident would you be about leaving your money in a bank that had large piles of cash sitting around in plain view, with the assurances from bank staff that there was a lot of discreet security and they hadn't been robbed recently? In today's world, bank vaults and armored vehicles serve a symbolic function as much as a practical one-- anigbrowl
So you, as a white person from Ireland, are in favor of harassing Muslims or anyone who "looks Muslim" on the basis that it will make other white people feel safer? Even if it doesn't actually do so?
Because, as evidenced by the not-infrequent scares where paranoid passengers report someone foreign and suspicious, this measure alone is not sufficient to allay people's genuine fears.-- anigbrowl
That's because the point is to stop planes from being blown up. Not pacify paranoid white people who can't handle being around foreigners on planes. If they are irrationally scared, then fuck 'em. No one is forcing them to fly. I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't fly today, or fly less because they don't want their junk grabbed by the TSA.
But they can still hold up a flight by making a fuss. -- anigbrowl


Again, the purpose of airport security is not prevent paranoid racists from being paranoid and racist while on the plane.
You want sufficiently obvious crude-but-useful measures in place on airports and on planes for airport and flight staff to point out, because telling fearful people to put their faith in 'investigation, intelligence and legwork' isn't very effective.-- anigbrowl
Again, the point is to prevent bombings in reality not in people's imaginations. If you start harassing everyone with brown skin, then people with brown skin will fly less often, and overall you'll have fewer passengers.

If you are arguing that racial profiling will make people who are stupid, racist, and white feel safer, then sure. But I don't see why I or anyone else should have that as their goal.
12% of Americans still think the president is a Muslim. Unfortunately, there are too many dumb people for us to ignore their effect on the economy if they are too spooked to travel. -- anigbrowl
A lot more than 12% of the population "looks muslim". But apparently you think we should be harassing them and in order to symbolically pander to racist idiots who would have to sell their double wide in order to afford a planeticket.

And I realize this might shock you, but they actually let brown people vote in this country! EVEN ACTAL MUSLMS! You expect that they would be OK with symbolic humiliation for no rational reason other than that it would make people who hate them feel more comfortable? (Normally if someone hates you, you want them to be less comfortable, not more comfortable) I'm guessing you probably don't even think of them as actual people who have opinions on things.
I told you: if the irrational 10-15% of the population drastically curtail their economic activity, including travel, it costs all of us. -- anigbrowl
I'm fine with that. Fuck 'em. I don't want their money. If racists are too afraid to fly because of their racist paranoia, then I think that's a good thing. I'd prefer they be miserable.

Anyway, your argument is basically "We need to harass and humiliate muslims, or anyone who isn't White at the airport for symbolic reasons because it will make paranoid white racists feel better, but we shouldn't do the same thing to white people because I'm white and I wouldn't like it. Also, I don't care how muslims or non-whites feel about it, their feelings are totally irrelevant to my analysis"
How is that not racist as fuck? In fact, it clearly is. Thanks for clearly illustrating how everyone who supports racial profiling is racist!

In any event, it is completely beside the point of actual airport security, which is to actually stop planes from going down.
----
When the relationship is causal, Schneier's jab is countered. That's not relevant? Whatever. -- King Bee
No, because if you're searching for potential terrorists, it doesn't matter if the relationship is causal or not. All that matters is the correlation rate. So for example if something was 1:1 correlated with terrorism, like actually having a bomb, then of course you would want to screen for that. On the other hand, if something was weakly correlated, then you don't care.

But look at the causality. Having a bomb doesn't cause to become a terrorist. Being a terrorist causes you to want to bring one on an airplane. On the other hand if being a Muslim "extremist" causes people to become terrorists, then it still might not be a good guide if 99.99% of Muslim "extremists" aren't terrorists.

But anyway, how exactly do you tell if someone is an 'extremist' Muslim anyway? Certainly there are conservative Muslims who have beards and traditional robes and whatnot, but the actual terrorists who blow up planes don't dress like that, specifically because they know they'll get less scrutiny.
Certain costumes and behaviors constitute ideological performances -- which is to say, we can know what a person believes, or is likely to believe, by his appearance alone.
I don't see any reason why we have to acknowledge this falsehood.
-- vidur
Well, if he's talking about traditional Muslim garb, sure. That's a great way to find people who are Muslim but not terrorists, as obviously a terrorist wouldn't dress like that.
posted by delmoi at 4:43 AM on May 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I told you: if the irrational 10-15% of the population drastically curtail their economic activity, including travel, it costs all of us. So there is a valid reason for addressing their concerns, within reason, even if we think those concerns are overblown. I've proposed reasonable and fairly simple solutions that address both practical and psychological considerations. I'm arguing for much less security theater, but just enough to refute complaints that security measures are visibly lacking. It's like any proposal short of 'abolish all visible signs of airport security' is viewed as a capitulation to the forces of stupid. Sheesh.

As an approach based in political reality, where the end goal is "making most people feel good" and "politicians getting themselves re-elected", this makes a fair bit of sense. Schneier's goal, and the basis of the linked discussion, is completely different, though: it's "getting as few planes blown up as possible while retaining a functioning air travel system". Harris seems to accept this endpoint of the discussion, which is why his extreme wrongness in it is so striking.

How far it's appropriate to placate irrational fears, or how far it's appropriate to give the appearance of a security that isn't actually there, are legitimate questions, but they're not questions about air security per se.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:09 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


As an approach based in political reality, where the end goal is "making most people feel good" and "politicians getting themselves re-elected", this makes a fair bit of sense.
Again, it only "makes sense" if your actual goal is making white people feel good at the expense of minorities. Logically, it "makes sense" to keep black people out of a restaurant if it's going to make racists uncomfortable to be there. This is, of course so obviously racist that it's actually illegal (although difficult to enforce)

anigbrowl's argument seems to be that we need to harass Muslims or people who look like they "might be" in order to make paranoid racists who are also unintelligent more comfortable, even though don't actually increase safety. And, since screening people who are white won't help with that, there's no reason to inconvenience people who are white, like him (since he said he was from Ireland).

Now, obviously this would make anyone who looks like they might be Muslim less comfortable themselves, but for some reason that's apparently not a concern.

(Also, the 15% of the population who think Obama is a Muslim are not going to vote for Obama anyway, so there would be no benefit for him to instigate such a policy from a political perspective. The republicans might propose such a policy to appeal to them in the primaries, along with deporting all Mexicans and other racist policies.)
posted by delmoi at 6:03 AM on May 30, 2012


delmoi, anigbrowl did not say anything remotely resembling what you're accusing her of. You're being a self-righteous dick, not to mention agonizingly boring (you've derailed her actual point and strawmanned it so you can make tedious speeches against it), and should knock it off.

I think we also need to consider what kind of action would be defined as "effective" by a terrorist group. 9/11 was effective in that it made Americans frightened, and to allay that fear, the TSA was invented and now we have to take off our shoes at airports.


Could we please stop talking as though this was the terrorist definition of "effective"? The strategists of Al-Quayeda could not care less about whether we take off our shoes. Their goal, as was repeatedly stated, was to: 1) prove America could be publicly slapped (success) 2) convince America to get involved in an Afghanistan ground war (success) so they could suffer the same fate as the Soviets (semi-success) 3) inspire other Muslims to join the battle for the caliphate (fail) with the ultimate goal of retaking Mecca (fail). Really, whether you are scared or shoeless does not in the least enter their minds.

Also, terrorists will not be disguising themselves as WWII vets because terrrorists have pretty consistently been not all that clever or creative (the Ven diagram of "people who are clever and creative" and "people eager to blow themselves up for the glory of God" doesn't have a whole lot of overlap). If terrorists start sneaking onto planes with Scooby-Doo style disguises, we can start taking that problem into account. So far, the current crop of religious terrorists seems much less inclined to try to fool security than the secular terrorists of the 70s.

They're members of a political/criminal conspiracy, not the goddamn Joker. Imaging all the wild scenarios they could enact if blah blah blah is not really very relevant.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:25 AM on May 30, 2012


If terrorists are so stupid, perhaps we can go back to treating it as a purely law enforcement problem.
posted by wierdo at 6:31 AM on May 30, 2012


Also, terrorists will not be disguising themselves as WWII vets because terrrorists have pretty consistently been not all that clever or creative (the Ven diagram of "people who are clever and creative" and "people eager to blow themselves up for the glory of God" doesn't have a whole lot of overlap). If terrorists start sneaking onto planes with Scooby-Doo style disguises, we can start taking that problem into account. So far, the current crop of religious terrorists seems much less inclined to try to fool security than the secular terrorists of the 70s.

They're members of a political/criminal conspiracy, not the goddamn Joker. Imaging all the wild scenarios they could enact if blah blah blah is not really very relevant.


It isn't just that though. It is about terrorists convincing a confused or angry white bread grandpa to carry out this mission. Or swapping out his luggage. Or filling some kid's diaper with explosives. Drug dealers do this all the time- that's why mules were invented. You get people who, for whatever reason, get a free pass through security, and you incentivize them to carry your package. Or you hide your package on them without their knowledge.

So it IS very relevant. It isn't about stupidity or fear, it is about ruthlessness. People who want to harm innocent people don't really care about politeness. They want to exploit holes in security. They don't have to be all that clever or creative, because all they have to do is be determined and lucky. The job of security is not just to reactively plug holes as they are discovered, but to figure out unknown holes before the bad guys do.

"Security theater" isn't meant to convince the public they are safe, it is meant to convince bad guys they are not safe.
posted by gjc at 7:04 AM on May 30, 2012


It isn't just that though. It is about terrorists convincing a confused or angry white bread grandpa to carry out this mission. Or swapping out his luggage. Or filling some kid's diaper with explosives. Drug dealers do this all the time- that's why mules were invented. You get people who, for whatever reason, get a free pass through security, and you incentivize them to carry your package. Or you hide your package on them without their knowledge.

And when has that happened? We had a terrorist put a bomb in his girlfriend's bag some twenty years ago, but since then, not so much. Terrorists have consistently proven way less creative than drug dealers. Perhaps this is because relgious fanaticism impedes creativity, or because the macho undertones of terrorism make them averse to "sneaky" stuff. But thus far, the number of angry white bread grandpas with swapped luggage, or diapers filled with explosives, is slightly smaller than the number of atoms of lead that have spontaneously transformed into gold.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:15 AM on May 30, 2012


It got spiked by a magazine editor, but I once turned up an interesting bit of trivia about how Sam Harris (who had asked the Washington Post to conceal his family origins, supposedly for their safety), the outspoken defender of torturing and discriminating against Muslims, was apparently the son of a famous '70s TV producer who had clashed with the Religious Right.

Harris came on the scene after 9/11 presented to us as the bold new voice of clear-eyed atheism, calling for eternal existential war with Muslims. But he really got eclipsed a few years later by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These Brits could lampoon religion without the baggage of Harris's weirdly humorless Southern California obsessions with reincarnation, mysticism and discovering the sacred by doing a lot of E.

I thought the Hollywood theory went a long way to explain where this guy came from in terms of narcissism and kookiness. The End of Faith was sold as this "people, let's be reasonable" defense of rationality. But it burst with kooky footnotes about how it was time to switch not to atheism but to various crackpot California ESP studies.

By the next book Harris was resorting to Stormfront-style statistical analysis about how an influx of Muslim believers into Europe constituted a crime wave. The Bush era, and the people who came out of it, make me sad.
posted by steinsaltz at 7:38 AM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


anigbrowl:"if the irrational 10-15% of the population drastically curtail their economic activity, including travel, it costs all of us."

They will continue to fly, the same way that they continue to drive and take trains. See, when you validate someone's irrational fears with security theater, you strengthen their irrational fears.

Security theater is a vicious circle: We feel unsafe, so we need to make ourselves feel safe by doing things that demonstrate that we are not safe, which makes us feel unsafe. (Having everyone take off their shoes shows us implicitly that anyone on the plane could be a shoe-bomber)

Even in your attempt to mollify the 25% of the population that is certifiably crazy (see the Crazyification factor) you are in fact making it worse. Additionally, security theater is not free, so you'd have to argue that somehow, making crazy people think it is safe to fly while spending billions and encumbering the 75% of the non-crazy people who have shit to do makes economic sense.

Your goal of making people feel better about flying is directly antithetical to your proposed methods of making them feel better which in turn do not ACTUALLY make anyone safer, all the while spending copious amounts of money.
posted by Freen at 7:39 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


gjc:"Security theater" isn't meant to convince the public they are safe, it is meant to convince bad guys they are not safe.

Well, here is the thing, has it worked? Meaning, how have we actually arrested terrorists? At the airport? Nope.

Through good policework.

It's the same as the mafia: you don't get them by going guns blazing, you hire accountants and get them for tax fraud. Less sexy, no gun battles, less theater, harder work, but gets the job done.

Scheier's whole point is that security isn't about airports. It's about terrorists and their ability to terrorize, which isn't limited to planes. Every penny we spend on security theater at airports is a penny we don't spend actually finding the terrorists.
posted by Freen at 7:46 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl:

Let me get this straight - you think we should do irrational, unfair and wasteful things because 10-15% of the population thinks we should?

More than 10-15% of the population believes that Mr. Obama is a traitor and should be arrested. Heck, 10-15% of the population probably believes in their hearts that emancipating the slaves was a bad idea.

> if the irrational 10-15% of the population drastically curtail their economic activity, including travel, it costs all of us

Stranger and stranger. So if the rational majority doesn't follow the irrational whims of a small minority of the population, that minority will boycott "economic activity, including travel" - a sort of Atlas Shrugged of the retarded - and our society will fail?

Sorry, I don't think so. They'll need to go on business trips and need to go home for the holidays, and they're going to get into planes just like the rest of us. It's not like these people have long memories, good cognitive systems, or plan ahead - there will be something to occupy their limited minds coming by really soon, particularly if the news stories are full of truth like "terrorist attempts on planes are at their lowest level in decades."

And even if this weren't the case, society cannot and should not pander to the small number of mentally ill people who exist even in the healthiest cultures (which this one definitely isn't). You don't let your six-year-old drive the car no matter how much he wants to...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:42 AM on May 30, 2012


Also, terrorists will not be disguising themselves as WWII vets because terrrorists have pretty consistently been not all that clever or creative (the Ven diagram of "people who are clever and creative" and "people eager to blow themselves up for the glory of God" doesn't have a whole lot of overlap). If terrorists start sneaking onto planes with Scooby-Doo style disguises, we can start taking that problem into account. So far, the current crop of religious terrorists seems much less inclined to try to fool security than the secular terrorists of the 70s.

Please clarify: Are you saying that terrorist have shown themselves to be non-adaptive to security measures?
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:17 AM on May 30, 2012



Please clarify: Are you saying that terrorist have shown themselves to be non-adaptive to security measures?

I am saying that terrorists have consistently not disguised themselves as, say, elderly Lutheran women. In the U.S., at least, they have quite consistently looked like the young men they are. There are ways in which terrorists have adapted to security measures (primarily in using numbers and coordination to substitute for weapons), but disguise isn't one of them. And therefore, all this fantasizing about "what if they disguised themselves to look like an 80-year-old WWII vet?!?!?" is just so much stupid hand-waving. Because it is invoking hypotheticals that have never come close to happening, it has the dubious distinction of being even less helpful, informative, or interesting than Sam Harris' dippy "things I saw at JFK" travelogue.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:47 AM on May 30, 2012


ThatFuzzyBastard: I never said that the terrorists were concerned with our shoes. I said that they were effective in that they scared a lot of Americans. This caused a number of events to occur, many of which you listed. But one of the other things that happened was that now we have to take off our shoes at airports. I highlighted this particular change because it's one of the stupidest. I was commenting on the fact that -- of all the things America did to "solve" the terrorist problem -- forcing people to remove their shoes and the various other security theater we deal with in airports is the most useless. I used the example of blowing up security lines to prove my point.

Aside from that, you seem kind of angry. If you don't like the way some of the other people here are guiding the conversation, perhaps you could shine some light on where you'd like it to go, rather than just, you know, shitting on the people who are actually conversing.
posted by nushustu at 10:06 AM on May 30, 2012


I am saying that terrorists have consistently not disguised themselves as, say, elderly Lutheran women. In the U.S., at least, they have quite consistently looked like the young men they are.

Maybe because they haven't needed to yet? Because we're not interrogating all ethnic-looking young men, as Harris seems to be arguing for? It seems logical that terrorists wouldn't be adapting to security systems that aren't in place yet, but rather the systems that ARE in place.

But it's undeniable that they HAVE adapted. The 9/11 attackers didn't even have bombs - they just took over the cockpit, which is much easier than bombs. Then, when the cockpit was locked, they started concealing bombs from x-rays and pat-downs (shoe bomber, underwear bomber, the new-fangled underwear bomb that allegedly could fool the backscatter machines). This is proof positive of adaptation to security systems.
posted by muddgirl at 10:08 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Again, it only "makes sense" if your actual goal is making white people feel good at the expense of minorities.

Just to clarify: I'm only saying that it can "makes sense" for governments planning their security policy to take into account the general phenomenon of 'feelings of security'. I would oppose any such policies that pandered to racism.

But the broader point is that Schneier is not concerned here with feelings of security, whether racist or otherwise; he's concerned with actually-not-being-blown-up-on-a-plane. anigbrowl has introduced a whole range of other possible goals of a security policy here, besides the one Schneier is actually addressing. My point is that these other goals may or may not be legitimate, but they are not what the linked discussion is about.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:15 AM on May 30, 2012


delmoi, anigbrowl did not say anything remotely resembling what you're accusing her of. You're being a self-righteous dick, not to mention agonizingly boring (you've derailed her actual point and strawmanned it so you can make tedious speeches against it), and should knock it off.
Well, he was clearly arguing for security theater in principle,
Because, as evidenced by the not-infrequent scares where paranoid passengers report someone foreign and suspicious, this measure alone is not sufficient to allay people's genuine fears
...
12% of Americans still think the president is a Muslim. Unfortunately, there are too many dumb people for us to ignore their effect on the economy if they are too spooked to travel
...
Talking about how great the security is behind the scenes can only take you so far; you also need to address people's anxieties by having some well-defined security measures that are obviously hard to circumvent.

Put it this way, how confident would you be about leaving your money in a bank that had large piles of cash sitting around in plain view, with the assurances from bank staff that there was a lot of discreet security and they hadn't been robbed recently? In today's world, bank vaults and armored vehicles serve a symbolic function as much as a practical one, but you'd probably feel funny about depositing your money in a place that didn't seem to have any security.
He did write this which seemed at the time to be saying that profiling would be a good idea:
My favorite part of this 'debate' is how Harris has to keep falling back on anecdotes. "This morning I saw a whole slew of WWII vets get secondary screened!"
There's nothing inherently wrong with that; reductio ad absurdum is a perfectly good technique of rational inquiry. Though I think Schneier has the best of this argument, your example above rasies a valid question; what is the probability that a bunch of WW2 vets are a vector for terrorist attack? It's vanishingly low.
So it seemed like he was arguing that some level of profiling could work. But if he was just saying that "Security Theater" without racial profiling is a good thing, then obviously that's not racist, but still quite stupid. Instead of just Muslims, everybody gets harassed at the airport! Awesome!
Also, terrorists will not be disguising themselves as WWII vets because terrrorists have pretty consistently been not all that clever or creative (the Ven diagram of "people who are clever and creative" and "people eager to blow themselves up for the glory of God" doesn't have a whole lot of overlap). If terrorists start sneaking onto planes with Scooby-Doo style disguises, we can start taking that problem into account
Wait, so are you actually arguing for racial/ethic profiling? If terrorists are stupid, then we should be able to catch them before they cause problems, which is what has actually been happening. The actual TSA screening hasn't stopped either of the two bombing attempts since 9/11, because they figured out ways to sneak bombs passed the current screening system. (first in shoes, then in bombing). And, neither of those two were from middle eastern or south Asian countries.

Richard Reid was born in the UK, his mother was white and his father was mixed-race afro-Caribbean. So if you were doing profiling, how would you have caught him? Interestingly Abdulmutalab was actually radicalized in the UK, and he wasn't from a country which is slightly over 50% Christian and hadn't had any prior history with terrorism that I know of.

So if you think that profiling could work to stop "dumb" terrorists that wouldn't put on disguises, then what actual standards could you have put in place that wouldn't have given Reid or Abdulmutalab a free pass through security?
is just so much stupid hand-waving. Because it is invoking hypotheticals that have never come close to happening
If we are not going to worry about "hypothetical" then why screen US citizens at all? There has never been a suicide attack on an airplane by an American citizen. It's entirely hypothetical.

There's also never been a bomb smuggled onto an airplane by anyone in the US either. That's also entirely hypothetical.

So if we are only going to worry about hypothetical, then we only need to screen flights to the US from overseas, and we only need metal detectors to make sure turrists don't bring box cutters onboard like they did on 9/11 (which couldn't have been prevented by screening since they didn't use anything that couldn't be brought on board)
I am saying that terrorists have consistently not disguised themselves as, say, elderly Lutheran women. In the U.S., at least, they have quite consistently looked like the young men they are.
There have never been any attempted terrorists attacks on airplanes since 9/11, originating on US soil. So saying " In the U.S., at least, they have quite consistently looked like the young men they are." is false. They haven't looked like anything, because they haven't existed.

Both times, they used a technique that was guaranteed to get through security. First shoes, then underwear. So they didn't need to wear disguises. Those disguises wouldn't have increased their odds of success at all. In fact, they did succeed in getting passed security.

---

To summarize

1) All attacks so far had been hypothetical before they happened. Guarding only against non-hypothetical attacks that had already happened would not have prevented them. And in fact, they all succeeded, as far as airport security goes. The two post 9/11 attacks only failed because the bombs failed.

2) No American citizen has ever tried to bring down a plane, and has ever brought a bomb onto an airplane to take it down from a US airport. So we if we are only concerning ourselves with attacks that have already happened then there is no need for anything other then metal detectors at the airport.

3) Finally, going forward if you don't try to prevent hypothetical attacks that have not yet occurred then you guarantee that any novel attack will succeed. In fact, exactly what happened with the last three. Terrorists thought up a new way to get through security, and the method they used was guaranteed to work in each case. And did.

To summarize even further: each of the past three attacks was hypothetical before it happened, and if you are not secure against hypothetical attacks, then you are not secure

And seriously, I can't believe people think theatrical makeup is somehow harder to do then building a bomb. You can just order the stuff you need on the internet. there's already been a case of someone sneaking onto an airplane using a disguise, if this guy was able to do it to sneak out of a country, why couldn't a terrorist do it as well?
posted by delmoi at 11:38 AM on May 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I know, let's do it by names! "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab" sounds like a bad guy name....

... but "Richard Reid" sounds like a newscaster from Kansas. Hmm.
posted by desjardins at 1:45 PM on May 30, 2012


or a super-scientist whose spacecraft was bathed in cosmic rays...
posted by nushustu at 1:59 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]



Wait, so are you actually arguing for racial/ethic profiling?

Actually, I prefer age/gender profiling, as age and gender seem to be much more reliable guides to threat level than race or ethnicity. Screening by nationality has some appeal as well---as delmoi notes, there have been no attacks by U.S. citizens. Of course, either will involve a certain amount of trouble for people who are innocent, but then, so do all security measures.

Finally, going forward if you don't try to prevent hypothetical attacks that have not yet occurred then you guarantee that any novel attack will succeed.

Yes, but it may also be useful to have some idea of what's a plausible hypothetical, and what isn't. Hypothetically, a terrorist might complete several years of flight training, seek work at a major airline, spend a few years moving from co-pilot to pilot, and then bring down his plane in a blaze of glory. But it seems vanishingly unlikely, for reasons that I hope are obvious. Meanwhile, any minute you spend screening pilots is a minute you spend not screening someone else. Schnieder makes a compelling point regarding the value of randomness, but he fails to answer the opportunity cost issue when one screens people who are almost infinitely unlikely to be someone you're looking for.

The theatrical makeup scenario does not match up with the behavior of any 21st century terrorist I can think of, despite the fact that racial profiling is quite unapologetically practiced in (frequent terrorist target) Russia. So yes, it could happen. But it doesn't. There are a great many sensible reasons to object to racial profiling in airport security, but this isn't one of them. When you invoke it as your reason for opposition, you make the case against seem much weaker than it is.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:00 PM on May 30, 2012


Hypothetically, a terrorist might complete several years of flight training, seek work at a major airline, spend a few years moving from co-pilot to pilot, and then bring down his plane in a blaze of glory. But it seems vanishingly unlikely, for reasons that I hope are obvious. Meanwhile, any minute you spend screening pilots is a minute you spend not screening someone else.

Hypothetically, a terrorist might go to a uniform store and rent a pilots or attendant's uniform, fake or steal an ID, and bypass a screening system that does not screen pilots. Seriously, do we live in a world where credentials can't be faked? When did that happen? I am really baffled by some of the scenarios in this conversation.
posted by muddgirl at 2:14 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, I prefer age/gender profiling, as age and gender seem to be much more reliable guides to threat level than race or ethnicity.

Except that neither are, by any stretch of the imagination, "reliable" guides to threat level. The only kind of "profiling" that makes sense is one which increases the threat probability to something non-negligible. Such profiling does exist - it's called "law enforcement finds concrete evidence that someone is a terrorist."
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:22 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"But they can still hold up a flight by making a fuss. You want sufficiently obvious crude-but-useful measures in place on airports and on planes for airport and flight staff to point out, because telling fearful people to put their faith in 'investigation, intelligence and legwork' isn't very effective. That's like saying you have a rock that keeps away tigers, and you know it works because there's no sign of tigers. Up to a point, deterrence has some security value, and simplicity and visibility are characteristic qualities of deterrence."

I don't mean to keep piling on, and I'm more sympathetic to your support for some security theater than others are, but this seems to me to be a misuse of the tiger rock analogy.

"We're scared of that man who we believe is a secret Muslim terrorist," say the irrational 10 percent.

"Well, we have an invisible rock that protects us from terrorists," say the flight attendants.

"We demand to see the rock," is the answer.

The other thing this reminds me of is when I used to work theater sound boards, and you'd always leave a channel empty so that when the director came to you with some vague, incoherent request about how the sound didn't feel right, you could turn the idiot knob and have the director satisfied.

I don't disagree with the idea of some security theater, however I think profiling anyone is about exactly the wrong way to do it. It has a high cost and provides next to no benefit. On the other hand, contra Harris, I tend to think that universal, arbitrary searches would be a decent public policy decision, especially if the other restrictions were loosened.
posted by klangklangston at 2:32 PM on May 30, 2012


A little context goes a long way in this particular debate, really. Sam Harris' position on airport security seems unreasonable, yes. It seems like he is basing his ideas on nonsense - on imagined issues, racism, and just bad information and a refusal to accept or consider any actual data or facts.

But that's not what's going on. Harris has some real, firsthand experience dealing with draconian and ineffective airport security. A few years back, he was unjustly accused of being a terrorist, arrested, and detained by federal law enforcement officers in the back room of an airport, all because his carry-on bag would not fit in the overhead compartment. But there was more to the story. He was specifically singled out - not based on any rational basis or even sound profiling of his individual characteristics and likelihood of actually being a terrorist, but because a high-ranking retired U.S. law enforcement operative had targeted him and used his connections to have Harris antagonized and detained. Fortunately, Harris was able to convince his father-in-law to let him back in the circle of trust. But he's still mad about it.
posted by The World Famous at 2:33 PM on May 30, 2012


No American citizen has ever tried to bring down a plane, and has ever brought a bomb onto an airplane to take it down from a US airport.

This is not actually the case. The motive was not terrorism in the traditional sense, but personally, if I'm on a plane I'm more concerned with it not exploding than I am with with the motivations of those who might be trying to cause it to explode.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:18 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


World Famous: That certainly makes more sense out of his weird middle portion, which isn't necessarily to increase scrutiny of potential threats (outside of zero-sum reasoning) but rather that obvious non-threats should be exempted from secondary screenings. I.e. people like him.
posted by klangklangston at 4:55 PM on May 30, 2012


Indeed. Plus, it was a very funny movie.
posted by The World Famous at 5:01 PM on May 30, 2012


But he's still mad about it.

The solution to this isn't arguing for his particular circumstance to be exempt while hanging all the others out to dry.
posted by Mitheral at 5:03 PM on May 30, 2012


I see that my joke was, perhaps, too subtle.
posted by The World Famous at 5:11 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl: They have. Fortunately, the amount of explosive that will fit and the shock absorbency of the body it's hidden inside limit the destructive radius.

Christ, do I have to spell everything out? Multiple people. Remove the explosives and pool them. Are you trying to not understand?
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:39 PM on May 30, 2012


"But perhaps most importantly, we should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism isn't really a crime against people or property; it's a crime against our minds. If we are terrorized, then the terrorists win even if their plots fail. If we refuse to be terrorized, then the terrorists lose even if their plots succeed.   Peace out."
posted by jeffburdges at 6:05 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but it may also be useful to have some idea of what's a plausible hypothetical, and what isn't. Hypothetically, a terrorist might complete several years of flight training, seek work at a major airline, spend a few years moving from co-pilot to pilot, and then bring down his plane in a blaze of glory
That's actually similar to what the 9/11 terrorists did. They spent years preparing and some of them actually did go to flight training. They just didn't do a good job. And no, it isn't at all obvious that no terrorist would ever do that, in fact it's fairly obvious they might actually try. So obvious that it's something they actually guard against by doing background checks, etc on pilots. Mohammad Atta has a PhD or something in architecture. If you're seriously arguing that we should not even bother to protect against people who are smart and terrorists, well, wtf? A lot of the "terrorists" caught in sting operations are actually stupid, clearly. But if they weren't stupid, they wouldn't get caught in stings.
The theatrical makeup scenario does not match up with the behavior of any 21st century terrorist I can think of, despite the fact that racial profiling is quite unapologetically practiced in (frequent terrorist target) Russia. So yes, it could happen. But it doesn't.
Yeah dude, ultimately some people are just not intelligent to understand what's going on. The fact that it hasn't happened before doesn't mean it can't happen ever. Theatrical makeup or silicone masks have already been used to commit other crimes. They've already been used to get on airplanes. Identity theft is also fairly common as well. Those are not difficult to do.

Amazingly, you just don't seem to believe that things that haven't happened in the past can't happen in the future, even though the past 3 AQ attacks were attacks that had never been done before. What you're saying is totally illogical, and if you're not capable of understanding that that's too bad for you, I guess.
But that's not what's going on. Harris has some real, firsthand experience dealing with draconian and ineffective airport security. A few years back, he was unjustly accused of being a terrorist, arrested, and detained by federal law enforcement officers in the back room of an airport, all because his carry-on bag would not fit in the overhead compartment. But there was more to the story. He was specifically singled out - not based on any rational basis or even sound profiling of his individual characteristics and likelihood of actually being a terrorist, but because a high-ranking retired U.S. law enforcement operative had targeted him and used his connections to have Harris antagonized and detained. Fortunately, Harris was able to convince his father-in-law to let him back in the circle of trust. But he's still mad about it.
Really? Well, if you just went by his writing you might consider him an Anders Brevik style anti-Muslim terrorist. Why not? I mean, can you really expect to write about how maybe we should just primitively nuke mecca (which he's asked people to "consider" whether or not it was a good idea, rather than just stating it directly).

That said, do you have a link or something. All I can find are refrences to this debate. Although according to this he also possesses a 9mm, and travels with 75 rounds of ammunition,, which hardly makes him seem super-safe.

Anyway, it's incredibly ironic that a member of a religious minority (Atheists) supposedly targeted for being an outspoken member of that minority (who uses violent rhetoric) doesn't complain about religious discrimination in general, but instead complains about how the wrong religion is being targeted.

It's like when Ann Coulter complains about being targeted by airport security. She's someone who once wrote that her "only regret" with Timothy McVeigh was that he didn't blow up the NYT building instead. I mean, how would you not expect to get scrutiny at the airport saying something like that?
This is not actually the case. The motive was not terrorism in the traditional sense, but personally, if I'm on a plane I'm more concerned with it not exploding than I am with with the motivations of those who might be trying to cause it to explode.
Interesting. Of course, that was the days before screening of any kind, even the metal detector – if I'm remembering right.
posted by delmoi at 12:11 AM on May 31, 2012


I mean, can you really expect to write about how maybe we should just primitively nuke mecca (which he's asked people to "consider" whether or not it was a good idea, rather than just stating it directly).

delmoi has never read this, apparently. He's positing a hypothetical future where terrorists have access to nuclear weapons. You seem to think that just because terrorist don't have nuclear weapons now, that they never will. Amazingly, you just don't seem to believe that things that haven't happened in the past can't happen in the future. If you're not capable of understanding that that's too bad for you, I guess.

Well, if you just went by his writing you might consider him an Anders Brevik style anti-Muslim terrorist. Why not?

Well, he hasn't murdered 77 people, so I probably wouldn't consider Sam Harris to be an Anders Brevik style anti-Muslim terrorist.

You know The World Famous's post was a joke, right? He wasn't serious. That didn't happen.

You cite that "he travels with 75 rounds of ammunition" as though it is normal for him. No, he once accidentally "traveled with 75 rounds of ammunition", not that he travels with 75 rounds of ammunition. That's from his original profiling article, which you obviously haven't read. Instead, leave it up to "loon watch" to give you everything you need to know about Sam Harris.

You hate Sam Harris so much that if he came out in favor of vanilla, you'd drum up some bullshit "argument" about how vanilla isn't even a flavor, how dare someone even compare it to other flavors, etc.

I know I said I'd stay out of the thread because it would be a bunch of undue insults hurled at Harris, but wow, delmoi. I didn't expect it to get to the point where he would be compared to a mass murderer and made-up stories about him would be accepted.
posted by King Bee at 6:44 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


delmoi has never read this, apparently.
Nope. It did see it earlier when I was looking for the original text, but didn't feel like linking to his website. And no, I didn't bother reading it.

However, I was curious. If Sam Harris is saying we should consider pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the Muslim world if terrorists get nukes, does he explain how that would help? I mean, some terrorists, somewhere in the world have a nuclear weapon, and we nuke mecca. How does that help? Unless the terrorists were in mecca they are still going to have their nuke, and now they'll just be even more pissed.

Anyway, it turns out that he wasn't saying anything about terrorists at all. Seriously, the excerpt does not contain the world "Terror" or "Terrorist" or "Terrorism" at all.

Here's what he's talking about:
here is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons ... What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?
Not terrorists, but "Islamist" governments.

Anyway, Pakistan is an has an Islamic government, and has nukes, and has been in a state of nuclear deterrence with India for over a decade. Does Sam Harris believe we should nuke Pakistan today? Do you? Because the scenario he's talking about already exists, and had existed 6 years prior to him writing his book.

He must have either not known that Islamic Republic of Pakistan was an Islamic government or that Pakistan already had nukes.

So thanks. This is a pretty clear illustration of how fucking stupid the guy is.
I know I said I'd stay out of the thread because it would be a bunch of undue insults hurled at Harris, but wow, delmoi. I didn't expect it to get to the point where he would be compared to a mass murderer and made-up stories about him would be accepted.
If you advocate preemptively nuking 1 billion people, you're going to get compared to a mass murder. I don't have a problem saying it. The guy is an amoral creep who probably would engage in a lot of atrocities if he ever had any real power.
You seem to think that just because terrorist don't have nuclear weapons now, that they never will. Amazingly, you just don't seem to believe that things that haven't happened in the past can't happen in the future.
The only way that could make sense if I'd actually read what he'd said and misinterpreted or misremembered it the same way you have.

But, let's look at the possibility that you, but not Sam Harris brought up. Let's examine it, think it through. Terrorists with nukes. You seem to be saying that you think dropping nukes in the "Muslim world" if that happens would be a good idea. I don't think it is, as I said, because it won't actually accomplish anything. The terrorists will still have nuclear weapons, and they'll just be angry then before and have far, far more support among the survivors. So how does it help?

The way to prevent nuclear proliferation is to have strict controls over the material needed to create nukes. Don't let countries import the stuff, and certainly make sure that as they use it they keep it under lock and key to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists. It's not very exciting, but if you succeed you foreclose the possibility of terrorists ever getting nukes.

Seriously, have you thought it through at all? Because I don't see how you could have.

Seriously. Explain. How does dropping a nuke on the "Muslim world" help if Islamic terrorists were to get their hands on nuclear weapons?
You hate Sam Harris so much that if he came out in favor of vanilla, you'd drum up some bullshit "argument" about how vanilla isn't even a flavor, how dare someone even compare it to other flavors, etc.
I'd never hear about it, because I don't give a shit what he thinks.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


And no, I didn't bother reading it.

And we're done here. If you're not going to even read what he originally said, then you're just as "moronic" as you claim Sam Harris is.

And no, I didn't bother reading the rest of your comment after that.
posted by King Bee at 8:58 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


You probably should have.
posted by The World Famous at 9:59 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


That explains why you haven't answered my question, which is this:

If Islamic terrorists got their hands on a nuclear weapon, and we launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world, how would it help?

They would still have their nuke, and now they'd just be more pissed off. So how would we be better off?

Are you going to answer the question? or should we just assume you didn't think it through?

--

Anyway, as I said in the prior post I did read it, after you linked to it because I was curious how he would answer that question (or if he would). It turns out you were actually wrong, Harris didn't say anything about terrorists in that passage. He was talking about Islamist governments. He said we should "consider" a preemptive strike if any Islamist governments ever get nuclear weapons.

This indicates he either doesn't know that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is an Islamist Government or he doesn't know that they have had nuclear weapons since May of 1998 (specifically, the 28th of May at 3:15 pm PST).

So the event that Harris thinks we should consider as a possibility for triggering the precipitation of the deaths of billions of people happened six years before he wrote his book. Clearly, he can't be too bright.

Anyway, feel free to answer my question.
posted by delmoi at 12:35 AM on June 1, 2012


Anyway, feel free to answer my question.

Several times in this thread, King Bee has said that he's not participating in this thread, either through not posting or not reading. He's been strangely inconsistent with this, though, so maybe you'll get a response. I'm still waiting for one.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:59 AM on June 1, 2012


Several times in this thread, King Bee has said that he's not participating in this thread, either through not posting or not reading. He's been strangely inconsistent with this, though, so maybe you'll get a response.

Since I said (in the post you originally quoted) that not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself, I thought I was clear that I wouldn't be posting (I was, obviously, still reading). I broke my rule when I saw too much ridiculous nonsense (delmoi saying Sam Harris is basically a mass murderer and that he routinely travels with 75 rounds of ammunition, The World Famous's "joke" above that many thought was real). So, I guess I'm a liar. I apologize.

Let the record show that I haven't said I would stay out of the thread "several times". I said I would stay out of it once in my original post, then I apologized for breaking that promise in the response to delmoi's unchecked absurdities.

I'll answer your questions, then the rest of you can have the last word and call me an idiot and a weak thinker. Go to town. I'm not interested in arguing with people who won't read the source material.

Harris mentions one correlation. Schneier points out that there are many; why focus on one? His WHOLE POINT is that this ends up being way to complicated, for little benefit.

When Harris points out that it isn't just a correlation, that it is actually the cause, then Schneier's point that "there are many" falls by the wayside. Maybe every terrorist in history has always worn a wristwatch, or has some other irrelevant characteristic. We know that wearing wristwatches doesn't cause people to blow themselves up and take others with them. Believing that it is a fast track to paradise does. Are there other things that cause people to be terrorists? Probably, so we should focus on those too. Some are easier to focus on than others.

I'm not defending Harris's overall conclusion (let's scan the crowd for Muslims), I'm just saying you picked a weird thing to pick out to classify Harris as a weak thinker. If you wanted that classification, there are other things he says in that conversation that aren't so hot.

Anyway, on to delmoi:

Wait, so you said you didn't read it, but you actually did? I don't know what the hell you're talking about.

If Islamic terrorists got their hands on a nuclear weapon, and we launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world, how would it help?

Help? It would lead to the annihilation of the world. As Sam says. Or, did you still not read the thing you said you didn't read but then did? He says:

It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own.

If you read the passage from his book, he's arguing for a way to stop Islamist governments from getting their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. As far as I can tell, Pakistan does not (or at least did not) have long-range nuclear weaponry six years before he wrote his book. At the very least, they don't have ICBMs, although I could be wrong about this. Maybe your sources tell you differently.

What he's arguing for in that passage is to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons, because he doesn't think a Soviet-style cold war with people who relish the thought of dying in a global jihad could work. He does not suggest anywhere in that passage that we "Nuke Mecca" as you are so fond of saying. He calls a first strike "an unthinkable crime", but apparently that means "let's go do it".

Alright, last word is yours, guys.
posted by King Bee at 6:21 AM on June 1, 2012


Let the record show that I haven't said I would stay out of the thread "several times".

No, I said you said you are "not participating in this thread" several times. "Participation" in a thread involves both posting AND reading posts directed at you, both of which, in separate occasions, you have said explicitly said you wouldn't do.

When Harris points out that it isn't just a correlation, that it is actually the cause, then Schneier's point that "there are many" falls by the wayside.

Suppose there is a disease, and you want to decide which people to treat for the disease. What's you are looking for are signs that a person is diseased. This may be through a cause (exposure to something) or through a symptom (red bumps with a particular shape). The symptom, of course, doesn't cause the disease. But one can use it to identify people to give the medicine to. If you're trying to find people with the disease, you don't care about causation. A symptom that identifies sick people with 100% accuracy would be preferable to knowing a cause that predicts with less than that (and Harris does not have an out by saying that it is only really a cause if it predicts 100%, since being a Muslim, his proposed cause, is a horrible predictor of terrorism).

The discussion was about finding potential terrorists (in my analogy, people with a disease). You're looking for things that predict terrorism, not causes. Causation is irrelevant.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 6:37 AM on June 1, 2012


When Harris points out that it isn't just a correlation, that it is actually the cause, then Schneier's point that "there are many" falls by the wayside. Maybe every terrorist in history has always worn a wristwatch, or has some other irrelevant characteristic. We know that wearing wristwatches doesn't cause people to blow themselves up and take others with them.
You don't understand the point of airport security. If being a member of Al Quaeda caused you to get a certain tattoo that no one else had, you think we should ignore it because it doesn't cause people to be terrorists, rather it is caused by being a terrorist.

If the goal is to prevent terrorists from getting on airplanes, the causal relationship is irrelevant. All that matters is what the strength of the correlation is. Something caused by being a terrorist is just as important as something that causes you to become a terrorist.

Interestingly, there is actually a particular type of wristwatch that has gotten people profiled because it's used by AQ bomb makers. the Casio F-91W, which was actually used to help decide if people were members in Afghanistan. The watch was apparently given as a gift to bomb making students.

Again, wearing the watch doesn't make you a terrorist, but being a terrorists causes you to get the watch. Although we do know a lot of innocent people were put in Gitmo by accident, It doesn't mean you should just ignore it. And it does show that people who actually deal with real terrorists in the real world in Afghanistan do worry about wristwatches.
Wait, so you said you didn't read it, but you actually did? I don't know what the hell you're talking about.
I didn't read it before, the first time I saw it. Then, when you linked to it I read it (the part relating to preemptive nuking, anyway). Seems pretty straightforward to me. I'm not sure why you're having trouble with it.
I'm not defending Harris's overall conclusion (let's scan the crowd for Muslims), I'm just saying you picked a weird thing to pick out to classify Harris as a weak thinker.
No, it does show he's a weak thinker.

If you care about things that cause you to become a terrorist, and you care about things that are caused by being a terrorist then, clearly causation doesn't matter. If you don't understand that, then clearly you don't understand what a correlation actually is, and you don't understand how causation works and what it actually means. There's nothing I can do about that.

Maybe you're one of those people who believe "correlation != causation", which is actually incorrect. The 'correct' statement is more like correlation between A and B does not imply A causes B There has to either be some causal link, or else it's just the result of not enough sample data, in which case it's not a 'true' correlation.

Again, this is basic stuff. Everyone else understands it. That you don't is not our problem.
As far as I can tell, Pakistan does not (or at least did not) have long-range nuclear weaponry six years before he wrote his book. At the very least, they don't have ICBMs
So, you don't know that the US didn't have ICBMs when it bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki? I'm fairly sure that Pakistan has airplanes. And in addition nuclear bombs can simply be shipped around on trucks, pre-placed in buildings and so on. There is nothing preventing the Pakistani government from nuking the US within a few days if they wanted too. But why would they?

Also, you're confusing what Harris said with what you misremembered him saying and criticizing me for not considering. This is what you said:
delmoi has never read this, apparently. He's positing a hypothetical future where terrorists have access to nuclear weapons. You seem to think that just because terrorist don't have nuclear weapons now, that they never will.
So I was considering the scenario that you said I should consider and that you thought was plausible. Now you've gone from terrorists with nukes to governments with nukes and ICBMs, even though we didn't need missiles them to nuke Japan.
posted by delmoi at 7:33 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


In today's news, delmoi doesn't understand the difference between "Islamic" and "Islamist". In yesterday's news, delmoi likes to yell at writers whose work he hasn't read very closely, preferably with a lot of moral superiority fueled by selective misreading. If I had to choose a security system designed by Harris or one designed by delmoi, I think I'd just leap from the plane and save Tim McHommad Atta the trouble.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:45 PM on June 1, 2012


In today's news, delmoi doesn't understand the difference between "Islamic" and "Islamist".

I bet you don't understand his definitions of those words, either, since one of them is a very recent neologism. If you bother to look the words up, you will see there is considerable overlap in some of the definitions, and it isn't clear what is meant by "Islamist country" or "Islamist government." So wipe the smugness out of your keyboard.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:07 PM on June 1, 2012


Interestingly, there is actually a particular type of wristwatch that has gotten people profiled because it's used by AQ bomb makers. the Casio F-91W, which was actually used to help decide if people were members in Afghanistan. The watch was apparently given as a gift to bomb making students.

And of course using the watch to profile is complete looney. It's been in continous production for over 20 years and retails for something like $20. Though a quick googling doesn't turn up production numbers you've got to guess Casio churns out tens if not hundreds of thousands each year. And it's popular enough that counterfeits abound. There must be millions of these watches and clones out there. The false positive rate would be off the chart; especially considering only a completely brain dead terrorist on a mission is going to wear them after the publicity.
posted by Mitheral at 3:18 PM on June 1, 2012


In today's news, delmoi doesn't understand the difference between "Islamic" and "Islamist".

*rolls eyes*. it doesn't suprise me you wouldn't click the links, but you'd think you'd have at least hovered over it to see the URL. It went here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamism#Pakistan, the pakistan section of the article on Islamism, which is what Islamists believe. Wikipedia helpfully gives a definition:
Islamism (Islam+-ism; Arabic: إسلام سياسي‎ Islām siyāsī, "Political Islam", or الإسلامية al-Islāmīyah) is a set of ideologies holding that Islam is "as much a political ideology as a religion".[1] Islamism is a controversial term, and definitions of it sometimes vary (see below). Leading Islamist thinkers emphasized the enforcement of Sharia (Islamic law); of pan-Islamic political unity; and of the elimination of non-Muslim, particularly Western military, economic, political, social, or cultural influences in the Muslim world, which they believe to be incompatible with Islam.[2]

Some observers suggest Islamism's tenets are less strict, and can be defined as a form of identity politics or "support for [Muslim] identity, authenticity, broader regionalism, revivalism, [and] revitalization of the community".[3] Following the Arab Spring at least one source has described Islamism as "increasingly interdependent" with democracy in much of the Arab Muslim world, such that "neither can now survive without the other."[4]

Many of those described as "Islamists" oppose the use of the term, and claim that their political beliefs and goals are simply an expression of Islamic religious belief. Similarly, some experts favor the term activist Islam,[5][6] militant Islam,[7] or political Islam instead.
Pakistan is an islamist country. It's a canonical example.
posted by delmoi at 1:01 AM on June 6, 2012


Christ, do I have to spell everything out? Multiple people. Remove the explosives and pool them. Are you trying to not understand?

If that's what you meant then that's what you should have said, though it doesn't sound remotely practical to me.

Pakistan is an islamist country. It's a canonical example.

Arguably so, but that's not at all the same thing as an Islamist government, which is what you had claimed above. Iran has an Islamist government; the supreme leader is also an imam. It's a theoocracy. Pakistan is a parliamentary Republic; a rather rickety one, to be sure, but its institutions are secular and its Ministry of Religious Affairs is occupied with logistical rather than doctrinaire concerns. As far as Pakistan's nuclear capability goes, there have always been concerns about it, but so far the nuclear brinksmanship has been between Pakistan and India.

I'm pretty sure there are people who do nothing but worry about and seek intel on the exact disposition of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and try toc ome up with contingency plans neutralizing it as a threat; if the country were to devolve towards theocracy or similar, I wouldn't be surprised to see such contingency plans put into action, though I hope we have a wide variety of other things to try before we begin considering pre-emptive nuclear strikes on even the smallest conceivable scale.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:00 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


If that's what you meant then that's what you should have said, though it doesn't sound remotely practical to me.

Oh, yeah, I forgot. It's all about practicality. Sorry. Glad they were never coordinate taking over four different planes with 20 different suicidal terrorists trained to fly planes into buildings. But that's kids' stuff compared to inserting and removing something from the rectums of four or five individuals. Got it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:51 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


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