If there were one word that we should expunge from the political lexicon, it would be “cowardly.” This is not because there are no acts or deeds to which it can rightly be applied, but because our politicians and officials have lost the ability to use it aptly. They fail to make the proper moral distinction between cowardice and other qualities.
One argument often made against taking significant actions against terrorism is that the number of people killed or injured by terrorism is, by comparison with other causes, extremely small. So even 9/11, which resulted in the death of nearly 3000 people, was a mere fraction of the approximately 35,000 people who die every year from car accidents. The idea seems to be that we should be spending much less money on preventing terrorism, perhaps no more per life saved than we do for each life saved from car accidents. That we do not do this suggests a severe innumeracy of…
It is too soon to say much about the horrific mass murder in Orlando. But I cannot resist saying something, so I will ask some genuine questions. The mass murderer – I will not repeat his name, but simply refer to him as MM – apparently was briefly investigated twice by the FBI, but the Bureau concluded there was insufficient information to justify a continuing investigation:
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ronald Hopper said agents questioned him two times in 2013 after he allegedly invoked ties to terrorists during a dispute with co-workers.
“We were unable to verify the substance of his comments and the investigation was closed,” Hopper said.
The following year, agents talked to him again about his contact with suicide bomber Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Floridian who joined a branch of Al Qaeda and blew himself up in a truck packed with explosives in Syria in 2014.
Hopper said agents “determined the contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship.”
The report about the 2013 questioning is ambiguous. Does it mean that the FBI was unable to verify that MM actually had ties to terrorists or that he had made the statements? The more likely interpretation is the former one. Let’s assume that the FBI was correct in reaching this conclusion.
The Obama administration has made the right decision to raise the cap on the number of refugees so as to take in more Syrians seeking to escape the genocidal conflict in their country. It is not only an appropriate humanitarian action, but it will be good for the United States in the long run, just as our reception of Cuban refugees brought us an enormously successful, entrepreneurial group of Americans.
Immigration policy is a tricky matter to get right for classical liberals, particularly today. While some libertarians support open borders, that policy would be unwise. If tens of millions of people arrived who were unschooled in our democratic traditions and relatively uneducated, they might undermine the very conditions for liberty that make our nation so attractive to immigrants. They would surely cause a huge backlash. And unfortunately today, our welfare state can encourage immigration by those would not be productive citizens. A classical liberal constitution would permit us to entertain a more open immigration policy.
But these concerns do not at all undermine the case for taking in more Syrians. Even if we took in a few hundred thousand Syrians, they will not change our political culture. Indeed, given the relatively small numbers, they are likely to change the culture less than did immigration from Latin America or previous waves of immigration. Moreover, these immigrants have reasons to come that are not economic: there is no reason to think they are here to seek welfare benefits. And like Cuban refugees, the Syrian refuges are by no means largely without human capital. Middle-class people with substantial skills have had every reason to flee.
While the Obama administration can lift the cap, Congress will need to provide more money to get these refugees settled.
For a generation, the U.S. government, public figures, and the press have been affixing the label “terrorist” or “dangerous extremist” to their least favorite people and causes. Setting subjective preferences over reality has been detrimental to our safety as well as politically divisive. It is past time for our body politic to make such designations in a democratically responsible way.
The Supreme Court will ultimately have to resolve the competing rulings, Friday’s from the Southern District of New York and the previous week’s from the D.C. District Court, on the NSA metadata program. Both are well reasoned; this issue is not constitutionally obvious, and bombast from either side will not be helpful in resolving it. But neither will emotional appeals to 9/11 such as the one with which Judge William Pauley opened his ruling upholding the program:
The September 11th terrorist attacks revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is. While Americans depended on technology for the conveniences of modern life, al-Qaeda plotted in a seventh-century milieu to use that technology against us. It was a bold jujitsu. And it succeeded because conventional intelligence gathering could not detect diffuse filaments connecting al-Qaeda.
There are multiple reasons this retrospective appeal to 9/11 is unpersuasive. Regardless, the issue policymakers are going to have to confront sooner or later is whether the potential for terrorism is actually sufficiently large and unique to justify the potential cost to liberty imposed by this policy.
Last week’s awful tragedy at Los Angeles International Airport, which by all accounts involved a lone and troubled individual, was notable for the commendable calmness surrounding it. There were no calls for military detention, no cries of “act of war,” no demands that the President intervene to prevent the accused, Paul Ciancia, from “lawyering up” such as were heard in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. But the act itself is difficult to distinguish from what, in other cases, is described as terrorism that supposedly exceeds the competence or jurisdiction of civilian authorities. It was politically motivated: Ciancia’s writings were laced with anti-government sentiment. It was an explicit attack on government agents in the performance of their duties. It terrorized civilians.
The picture of the little boy killed by one of the bombs in Boston has gone round the world and is particularly poignant. How could anyone have done such a thing to so innocent a child? This is a natural emotional response.
But is it a morally appropriate response, however natural it might be? I am not sure that it is; indeed, it could almost be, indirectly and unintentionally, of assistance or comfort to terrorists.