Monday, May 28, 2012

Sam Harris: Career-Suicidal Intellectual Theorist?

Sam Harris
Profile: Incendiary Public Intellectual

I don't follow any bloggers or tweeters or anyone, but I do regularly read a few public intellectuals because they write stuff that gets my attention, and Sam Harris is one of these few. He recently encountered a bit of resistance to a couple of his posts:
I recently wrote two articles in defense of "profiling" in the context of airline security . . . , arguing that the TSA should stop doing secondary screenings of people who stand no reasonable chance of being Muslim jihadists. I knew this proposal would be controversial, but I seriously underestimated how inflamed the response would be. Had I worked for a newspaper or a university, I could well have lost my job over it.

I told you he was career-suicidal! Best to stand your distance from the man, or you'll go up in smoke with him, either when he goes off on some sensitive issue or when some opponent drones on to him in response.

But if you're a foolhardy mensch, go over to his blog and read "To Profile or Not to Profile? A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier" (May 25, 2012), in which he writes:
I am not proposing a mere correlation between extremist Islam and suicidal terrorism. I am claiming that the relationship is causal. There are many ways to see this, and not too many ways to credibly deny it . . . .

The first sign of a religious cause comes from what the terrorists say of themselves: al Qaeda and its sympathizers have not been shy about discussing their motives in public. The second indication is what they say when they think no one is listening. As you know, we now have a trove of private communications among jihadists. The fine points of theology are never far from their thoughts and regularly constrain their actions. The 19 hijackers were under surveillance by German police for months before September 11, 2001 . . . . Islam was all that these men appeared to care about.

And we should recall how other people behave when subjected to military occupation or political abuse. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? They have the suicide part down, because they are now practicing a campaign of self-immolation -- which, being the incendiary equivalent of a hunger strike, is about as far from suicide bombing as can be conceived. And where is that long list of Palestinian Christian suicide bombers you've been keeping in your desk? Now would be a good time to produce it. As you know, Palestinian Christians suffer the same Israeli occupation. How many have blown themselves up on a bus in Tel Aviv? One? Two? Where, for that matter, are the Pakistani, Iraqi, or Egyptian suicide bombers killing for the glory of Christ? These Christian communities are regularly attacked by suicidal jihadists -- why don't they respond with the same sort of violence? This is practically a science experiment: We've got the same people, speaking the same language, living in the same places, eating the same food -- and one group forms a death cult of aspiring martyrs and the other does not.

As I've written elsewhere, it isn't impossible to conceive of Tibetan Buddhists practicing suicide bombing or of Middle Eastern Christians practicing terrorism at the same rate as their Muslim neighbors, but Islam offers a doctrine of jihad and martyrdom that makes such behavior perfectly understandable. And, again, it is the reason that jihadists themselves give for their actions.

There may be a conflation of "cause" and "reason" in this early passage in which Harris sets forth his basic position, for he states that "between extremist Islam and suicidal terrorism . . . . the relationship is causal," but also says that the "doctrine of jihad and martyrdom . . . . is the reason that jihadists themselves give for their actions" (italics mine). That looks like a conflation of two concepts that I would keep distinct, but I suppose that Harris is using the language of statistical analysis in referring to a "causal" relationship. I prefer, however, not to say that suicide bombers are being causally driven by extremism; rather, I favor language emphasizing the fact that they're making culpable choices based on reasons grounded in Islamist doctrines.

But that's perhaps a minor point to raise here, and I see no need to press it. I've yet to finish reading the debate -- a longish one -- but wanted to note this point merely in passing. I'm more curious what Harris and Schneier have to say about profiling. I don't know much about this issue, but I wonder what the problem with profiling is for those who oppose it. Don't we profile all the time in crimefighting? When a married woman is murdered, isn't the husband automatically one of the primary suspects since there's a strong statistical correlation between murdered wives and murdering husbands? I've put that a little crudely, partly because I'm not steeped in the literature on this, but isn't this a sort of profiling -- the husband is a suspect simply for the fact of being a husband. That is, he fits a profile.

Or do I misunderstand?

Labels: , , ,


At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Profiling is a rational rationing of limited resources but risks alienating law-abiding members of the target group. Given our nation's long and bloody struggles over realizing our slave-owning founders' expressed ideal of equality under the law, we need to be careful about any public policy or law enforcement approach that makes people feel picked on and harassed because of who they are. Muslims appear to be better integrated into diverse communities in the US than in Europe perhaps due in part to greater tolerance of Muslim cultural practices like wearing hijab.


At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi. From a quick reading of the debate, I now see what some of the problems are.

The debate is well worth reading.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Katherine said...

In addition to Sonagi's point, to insist that the only violent threats to airline security (or "Western" society) fall into a highly specific demographic (young, Arab, Muslim, male) is wishful thinking. Not that we should fan the flames of paranoia or continue as the TSA is currently doing; rather people should realize things like "Jihad Jane" do happen:

Jihad Jane/Colleen LaRose

There are some interesting reads about Israeli airport security and how it differs from American attitudes. Here's one:

Forget the porn machines.

In short: yes, they do profile, but it seems more/other things than race are taken into consideration.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ms. Koba. I agree with you about the need to avoid fanning paranoia. That's one of the reasons that I try to use the term "Islamism" and its variants to refer to extremist Muslims. I'm not actually sure how to distinguish Islamism from Islam, but a terminological distinction avoids fanning paranoia . . . I hope.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm genuinely surprised that Harris put in his post Christians in positive light. Dawkins in his "God Delusion" and on his website made up a great many false, twisted claims strongly questioning his objectivity and I doubt he'd be ever able to utter anything positive in favor of Christians. I like reading people's nonverbal gestures and cues as they tell us more than their words and in Dawkins some of them, such as his mouth corners turned down suggest that he spends lots of time looking for loopholes and anything negative to disprove that what doesn't agree with his world-view. It's interesting to see how his facial features has changed over the last 30 years.

As for Islam, in America the Muslims immigrants were relatively well educated and ambitious. They came to the US to go to collage, or as many Asians do today, to get education for their children. In contrast, the Muslim immigrants that flowed after the WW2 into Europe to help to rebuild the destroyed continent were predominantly uneducated, unskilled laborers left by European governments on their own, so instead of integrating themselves into the somewhat hostile towards them society, crowded in ghettos like Turkish in Germany or Algerians in France, and angry ghettos are usually full of radical, counter-cultural activism.

It's also worth noticing that the majority of American Arabs are Christians and I believe they might have a positive impact on their Muslim counterparts.

The five stages of Islam might as well help explain Muslims' docile attitude in the US.


At 1:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jack, I think that one of Sam Harris's parents was Quaker, the other Jewish, if I recall, so having that Quaker tradition might account for a somewhat positive image of Christianity.

By the way, check the codes under "Leave your comment" for better links:


Stages of Islam

One can now simply click.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, OK.

And I think, I'll be signing my comments with the Polish spelling of my name - Jacek, not to lower the quality of your blog. "Jacek" will indicate that all the gross spelling and grammatical errors are made by a still struggling with English foreigner.


At 2:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The spelling "Jacek" will also add to the international cachet of my blog.

By the way, is the "c" pronounced "s," "sh," or "ch"?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"J" is pronounced "y", as in yak, while "c" is pronounced "ts" as in "tsar" (Russian ц). Polish "a" sounds identically with Spanish "a" - Yatsek.


At 1:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jacek.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home