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End of Profiling: Letter to Sam Harris

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Sam Harris is an American public intellectual and a neuroscientist. He is the author of the New York Times bestsellers "The End of Faith," "Letter to a Christian Nation," "The Moral Landscape," and "Free Will."

Dear Sam,

I am a big fan of your work and you have greatly contributed to my intellectual growth since I discovered your work a few years ago. You are a brilliant thinker, great writer and an eloquent speaker and I always find your arguments well thought out. I have read most of your books, including "The End of Faith," "Letter to a Christian Nation" and "The Moral Landscape." Your debates and speeches, easily available on YouTube, are a great treat to the mind. You use well-reasoned arguments and a calm disposition to disarm your opponents, who normally attack with straw-man arguments and red herrings. It is always a relief to see your voice of reason prevailing over irrationality.

However, I was disappointed with your latest blog, in which you justify the profiling of Muslims at airports (I encourage all readers to check it out; perhaps they will arrive to a different conclusion). In the blog, you write that:

Imagine how fatuous it would be to fight a war against the IRA and yet refuse to profile the Irish? And yet this is how we seem to be fighting our war against Islamic terrorism.

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn't put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull's-eye (after all, what would Adam Gadahn look like if he cleaned himself up?) But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

To paraphrase the line of reasoning in your blog, you suggest that it is ridiculous for the TSA to allocate its scarce resources to screen infants and the elderly, who in your opinion "do not stand a chance of being jihadists." You argue that while white males like yourself should not entirely be exempt from profiling, there are "others" who fit the profile better than yourself.

I am not sure how you'd recommend that the TSA go about identifying Muslims. Unless all Muslims are forced to don a star and crescent on their clothing, I am assuming that you are advocating for the profiling of people who appear to be from the Middle East and other Muslim countries, i.e. identifying them by their race. My missive is based on the assumption that you are advocating for racial profiling at airports. I hope that I am dead wrong on that, and if I am, I owe you a sincere apology.

Religion, of course, does not determine a person's race. You have unjustly been called a racist in the past due to your views on Islam. But in your call for profiling people who "could conceivably be Muslim," aren't you assuming that Islam should be viewed in terms of race and ethnicity? Is there any other way to distinguish people from other religions? As you say, the TSA might miss frisking a potential terrorist by spending more time on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But if we went with your recommendations, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber" who is a black man from Nigeria, would also slip through security while the TSA frisks a Pakistani family heading to Disney World for holiday. If the TSA was to use "Muslim names" instead of race and ethnicity, I doubt that your friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be happy to be subjected to excessive TSA inspection just because her name fits a certain profile.

Racial profiling, by the TSA or the police, should be categorically denounced by anyone living in the 21st century. It is utterly insensitive that while the U.S. is dealing with the extremities of such a barbaric practice that's suspected to have ended young Trayvon Martin's life, a respected public intellectual like yourself would advocate its practice on others. Of course, you are not in any way a racist, but your callous sentiments lack the sensitivity requisite in contemporary public discourse on race-related issues. They are manifest to the white privilege that still looms large in the United States.

As a Kenyan citizen (I have a long-form birth certificate to prove this), I share your concerns on the threat of global terrorism. My country has sustained severe attacks of terrorism and our army is currently engaged in a war with Al-Shabaab, a terror group with links to al Qaeda that's based in Somalia. But I do not share your discriminatory approach in guaranteeing safety. During the recent attacks in Kenya, internal security forces subjected distinct looking Somalis in Kenya (most of who are bona fide Kenyan citizens) to unwarranted mistreatment in the name of cracking down on Al-Shabaab operatives and sympathizers. It was sad to see my country sink into paranoia to the extent of infringing on its citizen's civil rights. You shouldn't want the same for your country or for anyone.

Profiling is a cheap short-cut to security and should never be recommended as a solution. It hasn't worked in deterring crime in the U.S. and I doubt it would work in flight safety. I know that many Americans are vehemently opposed to any form of racial profiling even after 9-11 and I was happy to see that your Facebook fans were the first to condemn your views. I hope you will reconsider your position.

Sincerely,

Concerned Fan.