People died in a barbaric terrorist act recently at [insert terrorist act here]. That is terrible news. I wish it didn’t happen. It happens far too frequently.
We ask collectively “Could it have been prevented?” This question is more than idle curiosity, as it informs the follow-up “Can future terrorist acts be prevented?”
I highly doubt both of these propositions. They assume some fantastical superhero-like state, with the strength of an all-seeing and all-knowing Allfather. As much money as the state security apparatus gets, … and this is enough to monitor a lot, it still doesn’t bug my office, and would be very bored if it did. As much computer power as it has, it still cannot predict where I am going this afternoon.
Since we don’t have such a state, some people are proposing giving the state more powers so that we can naively feel comfortable in our security, foregoing our freedoms. The state will be at least a more-seeing and more-knowing Most-father.
Strategies proffered, like banning encryption (if encryption is outlawed, only outlaws, and the government, will have encryption), or registering people based on their religion or ethnicity, or building a wall, or prohibiting refugees are unenforceable or miss the point entirely. These are mostly nonsense ideas which might sound good if you live your life in fear because you watch too much news on television. Will ever more power for the security state really make a difference in our security? Like everything else, there are diminishing returns to investments in security.
Someone with a modicum of skill, who is determined to kill you, and is willing to lose their own life, will kill you.
No – kill them first.
Leaving aside the constitutional problem of killing people who have not actually committed a crime in the United States, is the physical problem of precognition. The state cannot actually monitor everyone all the time, with humans. Imagine 50% of the people were guardian/spies listening in on the other 50%. Do you trust the first 50%? This is such an old problem, there is a Latin phrase for this: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Even the most successful state security systems of fascist and communist countries still faced assassination attempts and revolutions from time to time. Perhaps this omni-state can reduce the likelihood of success of terrorist attempts, but it cannot ever eliminate the possibility. All we are arguing about is degree of security. Frankly, we are fairly safe now. Total global violence is near an all-time low. We should aim for zero deaths from violence, but efforts to reach zero are not without costs, which reduce the possibilities of other kinds of improvements.
Then there are the costs in human life of such a security state, which are often higher then the actual costs of barbaric terrorist acts that justify them. While these are not directly comparable numbers, I will compare them anyway, as getting a sense of the magnitudes of risks is important. In the US, the police killed over 1000 people so far this year. Terrorists killed 3. The September 11 attacks killed nearly 3000 people.
Certainly there is the risk terrorists will kill more. Maybe they will get the bomb, or poison the water supply. My 15 year old self was fairly sure that some city would have been nuked by now.
We want to avoid these mega-risks. But we also want to avoid run-of-the-mill non-political intentional killing (US homicides 16121 in 2013 and suicides 41149) and car crashes (33804). We conspicuously don’t confiscate guns or cars. We accept certain risks as the cost of doing business.
There is also the risk that in an enhanced superstate, the police and military will kill more Americans than they do now. Increasing deportation rates of undocumented residents will increase the mistaken deportation of legal residents and citizens. Increasing the level of policing will likely increase the number of innocent people killed or jailed by the police.
Bring the fight to them, so we don’t have to fight them here.
We have of course brought the fight to them.
Had there been no Operation Iraqi Freedom, there would likely be no Daesh. And we continue to pummel them with air strikes and drone attacks, day after day. We could increase these numbers, but face the same problem. We target the “best” targets first (the one with the greatest likelihood of getting the bad guys without mistakenly getting the innocents and creating future terrorists in a multi-generational war), the next best targets second, and so on, until the last target we have little confidence we won’t be mostly killing innocents. If we killed everyone in the country, sure we would kill all the barbarians, but we would kill the innocents too. That is not the American way.
Small amounts of terrorism are among the unfortunate costs of living in the modern world. Responding by sacrificing our freedoms and the opportunities for others to live in America is a self-inflicted wound that fails to treat the disease it was supposed to cure.