Arguments we should retire from the public discourse

Here’s an interesting back-and-forth on surveillance reform in the Los Angeles Times. I found the arguments against modifying the PATRIOT Act frustrating, not least because they don’t seem all that responsive to the civil libertarian case for additional safeguards. But this throwaway line from the Heritage Foundation analyst defending the PATRIOT Act really got my goat (emphasis mine):

If investigators are sloppy, by all means, use the legal powers already in place as a remedy. There are adequate safeguards on the books to stop this, and they should be used. But the Patriot Act is not an example of abuse; it is an example of success. The lack of terrorist attacks since 9/11 and the absence of actual abuses stand as mute but powerful witnesses to the law’s effectiveness.

Now, the first part of this argument – that very few PATRIOT-related abuses have actually occurred – just seems factually wrong. Moreover, specific instances of abuse were repeatedly pointed out by her pro-reform interlocutor (Julian Sanchez), who also notes that the nature of counter-terrorism surveillance makes it less likely that abuses are reported. But to be fair, I’m no surveillance expert, so maybe these incidents are so trivial or so rare that they don’t represent any serious threat to civil liberties.

The notion that the absence of terrorist attacks since 9/11 counts as prima facie evidence that our surveillance infrastructure works, however, is as an argument that deserves to be permanently retired.

We don’t know why we haven’t been attacked since 9/11. Maybe it’s because Al-Qaeda fears another retaliatory military strike. Maybe we’ve disrupted potential terrorist attacks overseas. Maybe our national security establishment has systematically over-estimated the scope of the terrorist threat. Maybe the vast majority of nascent terror operations in the United States are carried out by bungling incompetents.

I don’t know if these hypotheses are correct, but they’re at least as plausible as the idea that our all-knowing, incredibly competent domestic security apparatus has foiled terrorist plot after terrorist plot since 9/11. And I think it’s telling that PATRIOT Act defenders have to rely on a made-up chain of causation to justify ignoring civil libertarian concerns.

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24 thoughts on “Arguments we should retire from the public discourse

  1. You say we don’t know why we haven’t been attacked since 9/11 and give some plausible reasons, which of course exclude the effects of the Patriot Act. You also exclude the entire military causes; for example, our victory over al Qaeda in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which has bottled them up in the caves of Pakistan. Here, they’re caught in a conundrum of our own design: either they lay low in their caves and survive or they come out and plot more attacks, where they will be exposed to all the elements of US power, which include the Patriot Act.

    But this is not really pertinent to your post. Probably only the famous historians of the future will be able to determine a discrete cause for our relative safety since 9/11, but probably not. They’re still arguing about the causes of WWI, for example.

    But, like the origins of that war, the fact of our relative safety after 9/11 is part of a situation, or a complex of causes. A historian would want to describe all of them and their relative impact, not just determine one overriding cause.

    The quote you put up does not say that the Patriot Act is the one-and-only cause. It says that our relative safety is a “mute witness” to the Patriot Act’s efficacy. This does not mean that it caused our safety; it could mean that it forms part of the complex of causes. Or it could only mean that our relative safety is an indicator of the effectiveness of the PA, or a “mute witness.”

    This just seems unexceptional to me. It hedges all its bets and makes no claims at all about causation. As it stands, I can’t see any way to dispute it—unless I were some kind of ideologue who rose to the bait of any positive mention of the PA.

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    • When you claim our relative safety since 9/11, what is this safety relative of? Are we safer relative only to that dreadful day eight years ago? Or are we safer relative to the eight years preceding 9/11… those years since the WTC was first bombed in 1993? And who do you claim is safer? Are you referring to all Americans, somehow disregarding the 5000+ US military casualties from fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan?

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      • I’m claiming we are safer relative to 9/11. The relative safety you refer to prior to 9/11 was only an illusion. Al Qaeda had mounted several attacks against us and were planning 9/11 in those years. We didn’t know about those plans, but that doesn’t mean we were relatively safe. If you think we were, then read (for example) Michael Scheuer. He was working at the CIA on the al Qaeda desk at the time and said that we most certainly were not relatively safe.

        I’m not referring to US military. Of course. They have volunteered to put their lives at risk to keep ordinary Americans safe. We can’t expect to keep the military safe if their job is to take risks. Obviously.

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        • I don’t think we were safe in the eight years preceding 9/11. Obviously we didn’t know about Al Qaeda’s plans and the WTC attacks were looming. But you are suggesting we do know Al Qaeda’s plans now and we know there is no looming attack on ordinary Americans, while I think that position is impossible to defend. Your perception that we are relatively safer now is no different than the general perception of safety prior to the 9/11 attacks.

          As to the military casualties, these men and women are Americans whether they chose to put themselves at risk or not. Having American targets closer to home could have a causal role in the decline of domestic terrorist attacks every bit as justifiable as the Patriot Act.

          A safety based on perception and an impact on terrorism that is unquantifiable seem to me to be pretty flimsy gains to sacrifice my civil liberties for.

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          • I don’t say that “we do know Al Qaeda’s plans now and we know there is no looming attack on ordinary Americans.” I say that their network has been degraded to the point where they’re not capable of mounting a strategic attack, whatever their plans. This is a lot different than pre 9/11 because we now know they exist and that they’re planning attacks against us and we know we have degraded their network, etc etc.

            Having American targets closer to home could have a causal role in the decline of domestic terrorist attacks every bit as justifiable as the Patriot Act.

            Exactly! That’s the same point I made above, when I said that Will “excluded military causes.” Strangely enough for you is the fact that this is the same point Bush made when he committed troops to the invasion of Iraq: fight them them there so we don’t have to fight them here. It’s good that you can see the strategic sense in this now.

            Nobody is referring to US troops when they say that Americans are safer because of the Patriot Act. That’s just a silly distraction from the debate.

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            • As you concede below, Al Qaeda still has the capacity to mount a catastrophic attack on ordinary Americans, regardless of our success in degrading their network. And as you also concede, the degree to which the Patriot Act has contributed to our success in degrading their network is unknown, though surely it has contributed. I agree with both these points. So in a cost/benefit sort of analysis, what have we gained as a country from the Patriot Act that makes it worth giving up our freedom from government intrusion into our private lives?

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  2. I agree that McNeill didn’t say the PA was the sole reason for the lack of attacks; but even holding out the lack of attacks as a justification is a logic error from Debating 101.
    Further, this line of reasoning is so dangerous because it relies on fear, which is inherently irrational- “strip away the PA, and thousands more will die”.
    The reason terrorists use terror, is that it is the weapon of the powerless. Al-Quaida didn’t send unmanned drones over Langly and blow up the CIA headquarters; they didn’t send Tomahawl missiles from their fleet of aircraft carriers off Manhattan.
    They chose a low tech, astoundingly simple tactic based on boxcutters and guile.
    It is the very simplicity of these tactics that makes terrorism so difficult to fight. We have no armies to mobilize against, no cities to bomb, no tanks and jets to blow up; the next attack, whenever or wherever it occurs, will likely be a low tech simple attack like Molotov cocktails or random small arms shootings in malls.
    There is no “perfect shield” against this. As long as people are free to move around, buy normal firearms, gasoline and bottles, and be willing to commit suicide, anyone can walk into a mall and start mayhem.
    The madness of the Patriot Act is that it attempts the impossible- to ensure complete and total surveillance and control of a free nation.
    This is evidenced by the massive and dragnets of electronic information based on sweeping up literally everyone, then sorting out to find the guilty. This is akin to rounding up the entire population of a city, then whittling down to find the burglar.

    By the way, this website, this thread, our posts, and our IP addresses are very likely being recorded. 10 years ago I would have laughed at such a statement as black helicopter paranoia. Today is is a fact. This disturbs me far more than the remote threat of being shot at the local Gap.

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  3. An error of moral equivalency 101:

    The reason terrorists use terror, is that it is the weapon of the powerless. Al-Quaida didn’t send unmanned drones over Langly and blow up the CIA headquarters; they didn’t send Tomahawl missiles from their fleet of aircraft carriers off Manhattan.

    Why is this claptrap? Well… 1. we weren’t at war with al Qaeda in 2001, except in their own minds; 2. we don’t deliberately bomb buildings with large concentrations of innocents, just to see how much damage we can inflict; 3. al Qaeda has no justification for their attacks, except through the canons of Islam, which demand that the whole world obey Islamic law. Etc etc.Nobody says there is a “perfect shield” against al Qaeda-type terror attacks. I’m saying (above) that the PA is part of a set of actions that does protect the nation. Nobody can say with any certainty what role it plays. Maybe none.Where do you get the idea that the PA “attempts […] to ensure complete and total surveillance and control of a free nation?” This is just more claptrap and hogwash. Write back when we have bands of thugs riding around in jeeps beating up anyone who looks at them or when we have legions of informers and commissars filing reports on ordinary citizens, like Iran and Arab/Muslims nations have. Then I may get all worked up about the gummint recording my IP address or the Pentagon implanting chips in my brain.

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    • Allow me to clap my trap once again and address your points in order:
      I am not making an argument for moral equivalency; needlessly killing innocent civilians is a terrible atrocity.
      But terrorism IS the weapon of choice for those who lack better alternatives. This is why it is so low-tech, so easily done.
      The Patriot Act was designed to keep us safe from these low tech, easily made attacks. But as I demonstrated, preventing a suicidal someone from filling a bottle with gasoline and throwing it in a theater is nearly impossible.
      What the Patriot Act is attempting to do is gather widespread information, and allow government to make the links and connections in order to find and stop plots. In the NY Times Review of books, James Bamford discusses this facility being built by the NSA in Utah which is to be used to vacuum up massive amounts of receipts, emails, phone records and the like.
      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23231

      That is, the Patriot Act isn’t trying to solve crimes after they are committed; it is trying to find those who are merely doing innocent things that might not be obviously suspicious, but ominous when seen in comparison to a chain of emails, websites, purchases,etc.

      But thats the problem; in a free society, we want to be able to make purchases, write emails, visit websites without having the government follow our every move. In order to find one dangerous plot, we are accepting that 100 innocent email accounts are read, thousands of purchases screened, and so forth. There is no warrant, no probable cause, just a massive dragnet sweeping up the innocent with the guilty.
      This would be bad enough if it were guaranteed to keep us safe; but it is as futile as it is intrusive, since there is no way to completely screen and analyze every purchase of gasoline, every firearm, every ranting blog post.
      So we end up as Franklin said, “with neither liberty nor security.”

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  4. This is a problem quite apart from the War on Terror. I recall a similar fracas developing earlier this year regarding the Obama administration’s claim that the stimulus bill would “create or save” X number of jobs. Sure, you can measure how many people get hired due to DIRECT federal spending on specific projects. But how do you know how many jobs got crowded out? How do you know how much of this is just redistribution to other sectors? How do you measure these jobs versus future jobs that are not had because of accrued debt, etc? I mean, if you assume that the economy would have tanked and the world resorted to anarchy, you can count every single job in the economy as “saved by the stimulus.”

    And you see what’s happening now? We get a certain reaction from the economy. Conservatives say, “See, it didn’t work.” And liberals say, “See. Wasn’t big enough.”

    I expect something similar would have ensued had we been attacked again. NRO would have said, “See! The PATRIOT ACT didn’t go far enough!” And Mother Jones would have said, “See! Doesn’t work.”

    Depressing, perhaps. But entirely predictable.

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  5. The terrorists don’t need to attack us, if we are attacking ourselves for our own protection or fighting each other over how to be more secure. For that matter, the money spent on security meant a real success for the terrorists. For months or years they have been able to sit back and enjoy watching us. Well, some pawns and maybe a few of the lower level leaders have suffered retribution.

    So, they plan an attack with airliners and then wait at home for us to come punish them… This would be sort of like being in a gun fight and shooting just once and then standing still while the opponent shoots at you. I fail to see the logic of attacking Afghanistan and I can’t even talk about Iraq without getting pissed off… We just went off halfcocked and unprepared to find these terrorist leaders when they had moved months before the attack. I think cooler heads would have prevailed.

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    • Terrorists don’t need to attack us to make us less safe? How does this work, exactly?

      Let me be clear and make no mistake (to coin a phrase from our Nixonian president): our efforts since 9/11 have degraded al Qaeda to the point where they are no longer a strategic threat (although they retain the ability to mount a catastrophic attack). Being bottled up in caves in the Himalayas doesn’t look like success to me and for sure it doesn’t look that way to them either. They wish that we had only meted out retribution to a few lower level leaders and pawns, but we didn’t. We have taken a lot of higher-level leaders. But, more importantly, al Qaeda is a network, not a nation, and we have degraded their network to the point where it is impotent today to attack us and, even more, it has been losing support amongst ordinary Muslims.

      The logic of attacking Afghanistan was simple: they were harboring al Qaeda; al Qaeda attacked us. I’m sorry if this isn’t clear for you, but it is for the rest of the world, including NATO. Don’t get me started on Iraq. I’ll get pissed-off.

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      • Terrorists attack civilian targets to create terror. That’s where the “terror” in terrorism comes from. If they manage to get us to sacrifice our freedoms on behalf of some perceived improvements to security, the terrorists have achieved their objectives without having to continue attacking.

        And please tell me, if they have retained their ability to mount a catastrophic attack how in the hell are they impotent today?

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        • The fact that many believe that they are out there ready to attack again is what keeps the people making money from our insecurities in business. It is what makes us less free and will continue to take our freedoms. We are afraid and the government promises to make us safe.

          Funny that NATO or world support can be used to justify something and the same people will disregard NATO or World opinion when it is in opposition to our desired actions. Funny but true.

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        • If they manage to get us to sacrifice our freedoms on behalf of some perceived improvements to security, the terrorists have achieved their objectives without having to continue attacking.

          Typical platitude. What’s more: it’s false.

          Al Qaeda’s objectives are not to get us to give up our freedoms. Where on Earth did you get that idea? To take them at their word, their objective is to get the world to follow Islamic law.

          Funny how NATO or world support can’t be used to justify something and the same people will appeal to NATO and world support when it is in opposition to our desired actions. Funny but true.

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        • The fact that many believe that they are out there ready to attack again is what keeps the people making money from our insecurities in business.

          Many believe it because it’s true. Or is it a myth implanted in the public mind so people can make money? Is there something wrong with people making money from the security business? Business and industry causing war and destruction in opposition to the people’s interests…. hmmm…. Where have I heard that before? I know! Lenin’s Imperialism: the Final State of Capitalism! It was a half-baked idea back in 1914 and it’s even worse now.

          And please tell me, if they have retained their ability to mount a catastrophic attack how in the hell are they impotent today?

          They can mount a catastrophic attack because it’s impossible to prevent one, no matter how many freedoms we lose. One can slip by nation’s security safeguards. They’re impotent because they are bottled up in caves in the Himalaya and have lost the ability to mount a strategic attack.

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          • Ah, the Lenin card, wow you guys keep that one on top of the deck.
            I had gangster protection racket in mind, but communist Russia or Nazi Germany will do. When we allow fellow citizens to be spied on or ransacked by police then it really doesn’t matter. You say its not happening…. OK, I will use the slippery slope card then although I really hate the term. Anyway, effective or not the patriot act is evil and should not be allowed to live. The end does not justify the means. Find a better way to do it is what I advise.

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            • Ah, the Lenin card, wow you guys keep that one on top of the deck.

              Wow I didn’t use the “Lenin card.” You did:

              The fact that many believe that they are out there ready to attack again is what keeps the people making money from our insecurities in business.

              Saying that dangers to our national security are “beliefs” that keep people in business mining our fears, like you did (above) is just a pathetic reheating of Lenin’s stale argument in Imperialism, the Highest Stage….

              Fellow citizens are not being spied upon and their houses are not being ransacked by police, like in Nazi Germany or the USSR. If you have to go this far over the top to make your point, I’d say you lost the argument.

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  6. I expect something similar would have ensued had we been attacked again.

    The point you’re missing is that we haven’t been attacked again—against all expectations at the time the Patriot Act was signed.

    You’re saying that, Patriot Act:Attacks::Stimulus:unemployment.

    You’re correct that if we had been attacked, then people would be justified in claiming that the Patriot Act was ineffectual. Anyone who tried to argue the contrary would tie themselves up in knots of pretzel logic, like they do with the stimulus bill today (to continue with your analogy).

    Unemployment went up. It exceeded the projections cast at the time the stimulus was passed. If unemployment had held to the original projections, sponsors of the stimulus would be justified in saying that the stimulus played a role in “saving and creating jobs,” even if they didn’t claim a direct causal role for the stimulus. As it stands, they can’t make that claim. As it stands today, people are justified in claiming that the stimulus was ineffectual in “saving and creating jobs,” since unemployment exceeded expectations.

    In contrast, and continuing with your analogy, terrorist attacks went down (to zero). They turned out to be much less than the projections cast at the time the Patriot Act was passed. Therefore, using your own logic, sponsors of the Patriot Act are justified in claiming a role for the Patriot Act in the decline of terrorist attacks—even if they don’t claim a direct causal role, which they don’t.

    Although to argue that the Patriot Act caused the lack of attacks is an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (from debating 101), nobody is making that argument. To say that they are is an example of the straw man fallacy (also from debating 101).

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  7. “Anyone who tried to argue the contrary would tie themselves up in knots of pretzel logic, like they do with the stimulus bill today ”

    If we had been attacked agaion, the argument would have been the same as it is for unemployment today: Well, we would have been attacked MORE. And the fact that we were attacked even once indicates that we need even MORE Patriot Act.

    Politicians always double down like this. We will soon see the same thing with the public option, if it passes. After a few years, the system will not be perfect. So some will say, see, we need a stronger public option. Or, the public option doesn’t work at all.

    With regard to the stimulus, all you need to do is change the analogy:

    Patriot Act: Security:: Stimulus: Employment

    There WERE jobs “created.” Just go to a construction site where people are building a bridge included in the act.

    So if we have unemployment, the argument comes, well, we didn’t get ENOUGH jobs. Meaning we did not get enough stimulus.

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    • If we had been attacked again, the argument would have been the same as it is for unemployment today: Well, we would have been attacked MORE.

      This is just pure speculation. Error from debating 101.

      Politicians can spin the truth all they want to but it still comes out as spinning the truth. I fail to see why this is an argument here. More errors from debating 101.

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  8. Well, perhaps if the world operated on principles that got you good grade in introductory debating courses, you would be on to something. But the world doesn’t operate that way. People don’t tune into the news, exclusively or even predominantly, for facts and well-reasoned arguments. Nobody sits down, listens to the news, and says, “You know, that Republican appears to be making a category. Perhaps I should vote for the democrat.”

    Which is exactly why these kinds of arguments will never be retired from the public discourse. Obama is going to say that the stimulus was too small, whether it worked or not. The GOP is going to argue for the Patriot Act, whether it worked or not. And they can get away with it because it’s basically impossible to disprove their claims of causality.

    And get this: Even if it WERE possible, people would still make these arguments. I think the arguments for continuing the drug war are objectively and obviously ridiculous. Other people feel the same way about global warming. Doesn’t matter.

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  9. On 9/11, my cousin’s office in the Pentagon was hit. Thankfully, he wasn’t there, though he lost many colleagues. He was navy intelligence; he can’t talk much about his work. But I know he spent most of the cold war in a sub off the coast of the USSR.

    I would posit a counter notion about ‘why we haven’t been hit.’ Our intelligence was different; from the pre-9/11 era, intelligence was mostly eavesdropping. In the days after 9/11 that ability was likely partially crippled because of the loss of the Navy office.

    The WaPo used to have a memorial for the folks who died at the Pentagon on 9/11; biographies for each person (I could no longer find it on their site, though I didn’t do an exhaustive search). Many lost that day were civil servants who seemed to be working on a new payroll system for the Army. But in the Navy, almost all of the bios felt heavily censored, what the people were doing was secret; yet there were a few indications in various bios that the office was hunting Al Queda.

    Since, with the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq our intelligence is more boots-on-the-ground simply because we have boots on the ground.

    (Disclaimer: This isn’t an expert opinion, it’s my observation based on partial information.)

    But I do agree; lack of an attack on US soil should not be interpreted as an indication of the success of the Patriot Act.

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