December 31, 2009

Preventing Terrorism "At All Costs"

Insofar as there is any debate about airline security measures at all (and there is not as much as there should be), the debate typically assumes that we ought to prevent terrorism "at all costs". But this is simply false.

Last night I saw a segment on the local news here in Johnstown, PA, where a "terrorism expert" (it wasn't clear exactly what his qualifications were) said that we could catch terrorists much more effectively by engaging in religious profiling. Apparently a federal legislator recently said the same thing. What these people are pointing out is something that should be obvious: having principles makes it more difficult to accomplish one's ends! Frequently people who refuse to lie or cheat or swindle fail to get ahead. They may even provide less adequately for their families, or give less to charity, than they otherwise could. Yet we consider these people praiseworthy because they haven't "sold out" on their principles.

It might really be easier to catch terrorists if we included religion on ID cards and did full body cavity searches on all US Muslims and all foreigners coming from majority Muslim nations. Maybe that would help. But we claim to have principles in this nation.

Similarly, it might be easier to catch terrorists if we abduct random foreign nationals, who may or may not be guilty, and torture them to death or hold them indefinitely without trial. But we claim to have principles in this nation. (We're liars.)

This is one reason why preventing terrorism "at all costs" is not what we ought to do. However, no one can agree on exactly what our principles are supposed to be. I would like to think that my examples above would be uncontroversial, but they don't seem to be. Even if these examples are uncontroversial, surely not everyone will agree with me (and the ACLU) that we ought, on principle, not to require unsuspicious passengers to pass through millimeter wave body scanners. So, let's suppose that there aren't any 'matters of principle' at stake. Surely then we should prevent terrorist attacks "at all costs", right?

Still wrong. We take calculated risks every day, because we think that the means for avoiding those risks are not worth it. For instance, driving on a Los Angeles freeway is hardly safe, but I do it regularly. Car accidents are tragic, but we don't try to prevent them "at all costs"; the way to do that would be to make cars illegal.

When dealing with ordinary crimes, we take whatever preventative measures seem reasonable in light of the personal and financial costs, and then punish those crimes we fail to prevent for deterrent (and other) purposes. Suppose you are a member of a racial minority which is extremely hated in your community. We could protect you from hate crimes "at all costs" by taking you into permanent protective police custody - i.e., by locking you up. You probably wouldn't like that very much.

Had the Detroit attack succeeded, it would have been a great tragedy. However, it would have been no greater than the accidental plane crashes which occur from time to time. It would have been more evil, but no more tragic. We can prevent both accidental plane crashes and plane-based terrorist attacks "at all costs" by eliminating all air travel. This, however, is not at all the right approach.

Securing the safety of the persons and property of its citizens is the primary purpose of government. Terrorism is a threat to both. As such, working to prevent and punish acts of terrorism is one of the key functions of government. However, we must nevertheless "count the cost" in considering our response to this threat. We certainly ought not to compromise our principles. Furthermore, even if there is no matter of principle at stake, the cost of some potentially effective security measures may be too great.

Posted by Kenny at December 31, 2009 9:02 AM
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