Why the Terrorists are an Existential Threat

Orin Kerr has an interesting post over at Volokh.  He says:

But before posting some substantive response to the book, I wanted to flag a dynamic that I think is driving both the book and the blog responses to it: Assessments of the terrorist threat.

My sense is that each person’s assessment of the terrorist threat heavily influences where they come out on what measures the government should take in the war on terror. At bottom, everyone in this debate is a pragmatist. Everyone balances the values of advancing public safety by taking aggressive measures against the value of advancing civil liberties by rejecting those measures.

The big difference comes in assessing the terrorist threat. Those who favor the most aggressive measures such as torture, detention without review, and lots of surveillance tend to see the terrorist threat as very grave in the short to medium time horizon. They consider terrorism an existential threat to the country, and they conclude that any step that might avoid a successful terrorist attack is a worthwhile step to take.

At the opposite end, the civil libertarian critics of the Bush Administration tend to see the threat as relatively modest in the short to medium time horizon. Al Qaeda can be dangerous, sure, but they’re no more dangerous than lots of other threats the country faces. Al Qaeda is just a few dozen people, and they can’t threaten the county in any real way. And even though they want weapons of mass destruction, the chances that they would succeed in a way that causes many thousands or millions of U.S. casualties is actually relatively remote. To believe otherwise is to fall for the Administration’s fear-mongering.

The different assessment of the threat explains why the two sides of the debate often talk past each other. To those who see the threat as grave, it is inconceivable that some would insist on playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules and be more focused on world opinion than the threat to American lives. To those who see the threat as modest, on the other hand, it is inconceivable that some would ignore the rule of law and recklessly injure our standing in the world. Each side tries to optimize social welfare based on its assessment of the threat, and each side thinks the other is shockingly uninterested in that goal.

While he is right in that, I think he has missed a major point.  And that is that while a “military” approach to fighting terrorism can end the terrorist threat, a “police” approach can’t.

If you are one who loves government, if you are one who wants a powerful government, then the “police” approach is ideal: it slowly corrupts the US (as each attack, or attempted attack, leads to more restrictions being imposed on the American people), giving us threats that only the government can fully deal with, without ever doing anything to really make those threats go away (that’s what happens when you punish people for doing things, rather than killing them before they can attack the US).

Look at the things that get the Left upset.  Do they scream about innocent American citizens being forced to take off their shoes in the airport, or the restrictions on carrying liquids?  No.  Do they get horribly bent out of shape at the government for spying on known terrorists, and those (almost certainly not innocent) Americans they contact?  Yes.  In other words: making Americans more subservient: good.  Effectively fighting terrorists: bad.

The terrorists are an existential threat not because of what they can do to us, but because of what their actions can lead us to do to ourselves.  The longer they remain free to attack us, the more harm they do us.  If you value the freedom of Americans, then you want the war on terror to end as quickly as possible.  Ad there are only two ways it will end: We win, and destroy the terrorists and all of their State sponsors.  We lose, and change ourselves to such a horrible extent that the terrorists no longer feel the need to attack us, because we no longer “threaten” them.  (Attention Lefties: Hollywood, with its movies pushing non-Islamic ideas, is one of the major threats they see in us.  I promise you, you will hate any America the terrorists find unwothy of attacking.)

One moral ignoramus wrote this in the comments:

Assessment of the seriousness of the threat is only half of the equation. There is also the assessment of the importance of the rights on the other half of the tradeoff.

I think that many of us civil-libertarian types would rather see ourselves and a few thousand of our closest friends killed by terrorists than to see the country pursue the course of arbitrary perpetual detention, internal movement controls, wholesale surveillance, and so forth.

What’s wrong with what he said?  Well, for one thing, what he’s “fighting against” isn’t “arbitrary perpetual detention, internal movement controls, wholesale surveillance”.  If you’re caught on the field of battle, your detainment isn’t “arbitrary”, and it takes a moral moron to claim that it is.  “Internal movement controls” like, oh, the way we’re forced to show ID to fly?  Where is it that the left, or even the “civil-libertarian types”, have been fighting those?  As for “wholesale surveillance”, spying on terrorists, and the people they talk to, isn’t “wholesale surveillance”, it’s targeting and intelligent surveillance.  And it’s what the left fought so hard to block, in the recent FISA fights.

But the most idiotic part of it is the claimed belief (I won’t dignify it with the word “thought”, because it’s pretty obvious no thought went into the comment) that having the terrorists kill a few thousand Americans would be better than those things.  Because having the terrorists kill a few thousand Americans is the best way to get a vast majority of Americans behind the kind of restrictions he claims to oppose!

The problem isn’t just a difference in threat assessment, it’s also a difference in desired outcome.  If you don’t want an overweening government becoming more enmeshed in our lives, then you want the war to end.  If you love or even care about America, you want it to end in an American victory.  And that means using the full power of America to hunt down and destroy our enemies and their supporters.  That means making it clear that this kind of behavior is not acceptable, and that engaging in it is bad for your health, your power, your ideology.

Because anything else leads to more government, and less freedom, for Americans.

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