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The impossible goal of a risk-free society

Those who advocate shredding people’s constitutional protections and using barbaric methods like torture in order to ‘protect us’ and ‘keep us safe’ have the easy side of the argument because they are appealing to emotions like fear. Those of us who argue that living with some risk is the necessary consequence of living in a free society are appealing to the rational part of the brain and that is a harder sell.

As long as no further terrorist acts occur, the advocates of fear-based policies can claim that it is those awful measures that have prevented them. If an act should occur, then they can blame those of us who have tried to rein them in for lowering our defenses and claim that we need to increase these draconian measures. They have the advantage whatever happens, and glib supporters of the national security state know this and exploit it relentlessly.

Those who favor the rule of law and the preservation of liberties must be prepared for that kind of response. So let me be clear. I think that not only is it very possible that there will be other terrorist attacks in the future, I think it is almost inevitable. It is almost impossible to defend oneself against people who are that determined and have no scruples against choosing easy targets such as ordinary people going about their business, especially when our own policies and actions in starting wars and killing innocent people around the globe are inflaming anger and revenge.

When and if that attack occurs, there will be screeching from the authoritarians and torture apologists that the problem is that we did not go far enough in using those draconian and barbaric measures because these people depend on that kind of fear-mongering. But living a free society that abides by the rule of law means putting up with some level of risk. The fear-mongers know that and they want to prevent people accepting that basic fact by pretending that they can deliver a risk-free society.

While watching the debate on the surveillance state and listening to glib apologists of the national security state like Michael Hayden and Alan Dershowitz bring up the false dichotomy about how we have to sacrifice our privacy and liberties because the alternative is giving terrorists a free pass, this passage from the play (and later 1966 film starring Paul Scofield) A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt came to my mind. It is aimed at all those who think that it is perfectly fine to dismiss with laws and due process when we are dealing with people whom we are think are guilty of serious crimes.

In this scene William Roper, later to become the son-in-law of Thomas More, urges the pre-emptive arrest of someone, an act that More opposes because that person has not broken any law, who adds that even the Devil should be allowed to go free if he has broken no laws. The following dialogue ensues.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!

[Update: Thanks to commenter Hyphenman for the link to to this scene from the film.]

We all live quite comfortably with much higher risk factors than a terrorist attack. The reason people don’t see this is because they don’t really understand probabilities and relative risk and have become convinced that being the victim of something labeled a terrorist attack is somehow much worse than being the victim of other acts of violence, the kind that we routinely risk every single day.

Comments

  1. AndrewD says

    To quote the IRA, – “We have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time”

  2. Peter the Mediocre says

    An eminently sensible statement. I wish I thought it would connect with the people who have the power to actually make policy.

  3. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Well said!

    I vividly remember that conversation between Moore and Roper and recall thinking that Roper acted as he did because he believed that if all Man’s laws were cut down to get at the devil, then there would still be God’s Law to protect Man.

    This may be a very early example of an outwardly religious person, as Moore was, admitting, at least obliquely, that God’s Law was a nice fiction to keep the ignorant in line. (Yes, I know that this is a fiction created by Bolt and I have no idea if Moore was ever recorded saying this or a similar thoughts in a real conversation.)

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff

  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I think torture is wrong.

    It is a horrible, unethical, wrong thing to do to anyone.

    I also think it is not the only or worst horrible, wrong or unethical thing that humans in our long history and present of doing inhumane things to other humans can do.

    Sometimes – very occassionally – the alternatives are even worse.

    Then it becomes the lesser evil.

    Still evil sure.

    Also still lesser.

  5. Mano Singham says

    @StevoR,

    Ah yes, that convenient loophole so that you can justify the people you happen to hate being tortured just like the people (and nations) that you hate can be nuked.

    You don’t seem to realize that once you have advocated that entire populations should have nuclear and other weapons rained upon them, your moral assertions, however much you may boldface them, are no longer credible.

  6. justsomeguy says

    My go-to line for this subject is “freedom isn’t free.” I like it because it’s an easy inversion of the normal context in which the phrase is used – traditionally some horrifyingly knee-jerk pro-military way – to emphasize that we all have to pay a price for freedom, and that the primary currency to pay for it is security.

  7. kraut says

    The simple question is: who benefits by increased controls to makes us FEEL safer? Follow the power and the money.

  8. Desert Son, OM says

    Mano Singham in subject post:

    they don’t really understand probabilities and relative risk and have become convinced that being the victim of something labeled a terrorist attack is somehow much worse than being the victim of other acts of violence, the kind that we routinely risk every single day.

    Thank you for making this critical point. Back in 2011 I was in the boarding area for a flight on Southwest Airlines, approximately one week after another Southwest Airlines aircraft had fuselage damage mid-flight. Fortunately, only two people were injured in that event, and their injuries were minor.

    There I was, in the boarding group waiting to get on the plane. There were three other passengers in front of me in a nervous conversation about the aircraft incident of the previous week, wondering about the safety of the flight for which we were preparing.

    I remarked that statistically, it was more likely to be a safe flight without incident. One of the passengers asked why, and I went through the likelihood of incident based on probabilities related to rates of mechanical failure in aircraft, frequency of flight, time passed since the last incident, etc.. I didn’t have actual industry numbers, so had to set it up as a theoretical exercise (e.g. “Let’s say that an aircraft built by such-and-such company has a 100% chance of fuselage panel failure every 500,000 flights,” etc.).

    The other three passengers seemed to calm down noticeably. One of them said to me directly, “I feel better.” On the flight, I reflected how—in addition to all the other things in education that need improvement— our society could benefit from a few solid foundational courses in statistics and probability as part of our education system, specifically focusing on real-world events (everything from lightning strikes to onset rates of cancers in demographics to percentages of successful scoring in sports).

    There’s a book I recommend about dispelling just these kinds of illusions with the kind of thinking you are talking about:

    Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: The Free Press.

    Gilovich opens the book with the discussion of the “hot hand” in basketball scoring, and demonstrates how it’s an illusion by examining statistics and probabilities over time in a basketball season.

    But, of course, as you point out, there is a challenge in appealing to things like statistics and evidence against emotion and socio-cultural myths of Hollywood fantasy problem solving.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  9. MNb says

    “there will be other terrorist attacks in the future”
    What very, very few people seem to realize is that the old craft of spionage by secret services is by far the most effective method. Dutch AIVD basically has identified all potential terrorists in The Netherlands, including the warriors returning from Syria. They cannot even move a little finger without being monitored. As a result a few attacks have been prevented last ten years. The most famous one is this guy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samir_Azzouz

    As for torture: it has been shown that the resulting information is unreliable, because victims tend to confess anything just to stop it. StevoR presents a false dilemma.

  10. Mano Singham says

    @Desert Son,

    Good points. I have read Gilovich’s book and can also recommend it.

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @5.Mano Singham :

    You don’t seem to realize that once you have advocated that entire populations should have nuclear and other weapons rained upon them, your moral assertions, however much you may boldface them, are no longer credible.

    You seem to be confusing me with colnago80 – I didn’t advocate (& don’t) advocate nuking anyone anywhere.

    @9. MNb : Torture apparently according to those who were involved reliably got the info needed to get Osama Bin Laden. Its also probably stopped a lot of terrorists atrocities that we don’t know about because they didn’t happen because the information was gained by torture to stop them.

    You and millions of others could owe your life to that.

    Thinking of credibility I don’t think yours is overly high especially compared to the counter-terrorism experts who do have the necessary knowledge and expertise to make their judgement calls. I’ll leave it to them because they do and listen to what they say because they do know what they are doing and talking about.

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    PS. Before someone even mentions my comments from ages ago – last year – about Gaza were made during wartime when Hamas were using the place as abase to fire rockets into innocent civilian cities -and did NOT involve nuclear bombs.

    Circumstances have changed and I don’t now support that and in any case wouldn’t unless it was absolutely necessary to save others lives.

  13. Silentbob says

    Explanatory note: This is a sore point for StevoR, because he got banned from Pharyngula for supporting torture.

  14. Silentbob says

    I don’t claim to be any paragon of virtue, but it’s astonishing to me that this simple moral proposition (encapsulated in the ancient ‘Golden Rule”), that you cannot deny rights to others that you would claim for yourself, still seems so alien to so many.

  15. says

    @StevoR #11,

    It is easy to confuse you with colnago80 since you seem to be so similar in your willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people purely on the basis that the government of Israel thinks of them as enemies.

    But your claim that “I didn’t advocate (& don’t) advocate nuking anyone anywhere” is flat-out false and easily refuted with your own words.

    Here is one post of yours where you explicitly call for the use of nuclear bombs against Iran and then casually add “As for nuking Pakistan, yeah, we may well have to do that too.”

    Here is another post of yours where you call for the use of massive conventional and nonconventional (i.e., nuclear) weapons.

    I am not sure how someone could openly advocate such horrific acts and then claim to have not said them.

    You also seem to think that saying you don’t like to nuke countries or torture people lets you off the hook for advocating mass murder and war crimes. Only a psychotically deranged person would like such things.

  16. Friendly says

    Torture apparently according to those who were involved reliably got the info needed to get Osama Bin Laden. Its also probably stopped a lot of terrorists atrocities that we don’t know about because they didn’t happen because the information was gained by torture to stop them.

    Study after study shows that torture does not yield reliable information. The U.S.’s recent torture efforts certainly didn’t achieve the results you’re claiming:

    “The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

  17. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @15.Mano Singham :

    @StevoR #11, It is easy to confuse you with colnago80 since you seem to be so similar in your willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people purely on the basis that the government of Israel thinks of them as enemies. …

    Wrong. I don’t think that the government of Israel merely thinking they are enemies is far from sufficient to justify anything more than the careful monitoring of people or / and groups.

    Even them actually being enemies isn’t enough to justify war depending on what these enemies of Israel actually do!

    When the enemies of Israel are firing rockets at innocent civilians, launching homicide-suicide bombings and carrying out acts of war and terrorism then and only then is it justified because it becomes a kill or be killed survival situation.

    But your claim that “I didn’t advocate (& don’t) advocate nuking anyone anywhere” is flat-out false and easily refuted with your own words. Here is one post of yours where you explicitly call for the use of nuclear bombs against Iran and then casually add “As for nuking Pakistan, yeah, we may well have to do that too.”

    Mano, that was from over two years ago (April 6, 2012 at 6:27 am)NOT in this thread – not even on this blog and not now.

    That was also assuming a hypothetical wartime scenario where the option of bombing is compared with a land war and I wasn’t that I was advocating bombing merely noting it as the lesser evil in an horrid situation where all options are terrible and unpleasant. Saying that given X, course Y is better than course Z because it kills less people and does less harm all things considered is NOT the same as saying “oh yeah lets just do Y” for he hell of it. I think that what I noted there was basic logic that follows in a given wartime scenario.

    I certainly wasn’t saying there -and won’t say – that we should bomb or nuke anyone if it could be reasonably avoided NOR that bombing or nuking anyone is a good thing.

    As for the Pakistan note, again, that was dealing a conditional hypothetical scenario which thankfully hasn’t yet occurred but still might – from my comment of 2012 April 6th linked in # 15 above :

    “I fully expect the Jihadists to take that over that miserable hellhole (officially, they run much of it behind the scenes now) one day in the relatively near-future.”

    It is obvious, surely, that that implies as intended that I was meaning only under those plausible but not presently actual circumstances of a Jihadist run nuclear-armed Pakistan would we have to consider taking such desperate, grim otherwise unacceptable measures.

    Here is another post of yours where you call for the use of massive conventional and nonconventional (i.e., nuclear) weapons. I am not sure how someone could openly advocate such horrific acts and then claim to have not said them.

    Said what? My conclusion there was :

    “My preference would be a decapitation strike on the leadership and Iran’s nuclear sites hidden and otherwise but I’m sure the Israeli generals know what they’re doing and already have some good plans ready and waiting to be put into effect. Ultimately, it is Israel’s generals who – quite correctly – will make the decision on what to do here for the sake of their nation and people being saved from the current existential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear nightmare.”

    IOW, Trust Israel’s military to know and do their job(s) and have plans if the worst comes to the worst – and if you look at the context there I was actually disagreeing with slc1 – now known as colnago80.

    So in a quote you used to supposed show how similar our views supposedly are, we were actually arguing against each other and in a quote designed to show my support for using nukes I was arguing against that option too!

    You also seem to think that saying you don’t like to nuke countries or torture people lets you off the hook for advocating mass murder and war crimes. Only a psychotically deranged person would like such things.

    Thing is, I was NOT advocating mass murder or war crimes at all. I was making a few rational and logical if perhaps coldly blunt and angry points from a perspective of analysing options in the “if ..then” sense i.e. *IF we are at war with Iran then these are our less worse options because they’ll do least harm and cost least innocent lives.

    At that time, I thought that we were de facto at war with Iran and Ahmadinhejad was fully in charge of it. I am no longer sure this is the case and my views have since mellowed further.

    Finally, I don’t know how many times I have to clarify this but once more :

    NO I DO NOT SUPPORT bombing Iran, nor torture, nor the use of nuclear WMDs by anyone.

    How can I possibly make that any clearer?

  18. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    PS. Whilst we’re dropping links to other threads about what I think here’s one :

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2014/01/09/ladies-and-gentlemen-the-obnoxious-pam-geller/#comment-293944

    Where I specifically outline better alternatives that I’d prefer to see rather than any WMDs being used on Iran in comment 38 & 37 (scroll up lower part of that comment) – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Obnoxious Pam Geller’ – again in an argument against colnago80’s nuclear option :

    There are plenty of innocent Iranians who don’t deserve to be killed. Almost all Iranians probably fall into that category. I don’t think Iranians should be nuked even with one Hiroshima sized A-bomb if it can possibly be avoided. I don’t think we should resort to wiping out cities – but we should certainly make sure we prevent Iran from harming others and wiping out cities and nations as some of its leaders and zealots wish to do.

    In addition to listing my preferred solution to the problem posed by Iran at present as :

    An internal revolution and change of culture whereby Iranians themselves rise up against and overthrow the Islamists and shift their culture back to one that is no longer fundamentalist and preferably no longer Islamic. This came close to happening some years ago but was brutally crushed by the Iranian regime.

    This internal transformation is also, incidentally what I would most like to see from the Palestinians with that group seeing reason and preferably voluntarily emigrating to neighbouring Arab nations such as Jordan * with Israeli compensation as their reward for that enabling them to have a new better start or assimilating peacefully into Israel as Arab Israelis respecting the Jewish lands right to exist as just that.

    The main thing I want is that they stop the terrorism and wars and hatred. Is that really so much to ask?

    * Jordan after all was the original state created for them from the original Mandate. If they want to name Jordan ‘Palestine’ that’s fine by me. Gaza should go to Egypt as it once was ot could govern itself provided it does so peacefully without menacing others.

  19. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ Silentbob :

    Explanatory note: This is a sore point for StevoR, because he got banned from Pharyngula for supporting torture.

    Which was wrong because I do NOT support torture – and I specifically stated that even in the comment (#596, 29th August 2013 at 8:48 am T-dome-31) that I was banned for making which was an answer to a question / comment that Ze Madmax, Anthony K & Rob Grigjanis demanded insistently that I give them ASAP :

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/25/thunderdome-31/comment-page-2/#comment-679729

    (5) Torture. Okay something vaguely – if only vaguely – approaching relevance for the very first time. I presume you refer to the likes of Gitmo & Abu Ghraib rather than what the terrorists are doing all the time to any of the prisoners and hostages they capture? Torturing people is horrible and what happened at Abu Ghraib was wrong. But, frankly, Al Quaida,Taliban and other Jihadist masterminds? My sympathy for them is about zilch. They murdered thousands of people, they seek to murder zillions. Yeah, I’m not fussed if their lives aren’t lived in luxury or if they experience a bit of discomfort during enhanced interrogations – especially if that yields information that saves lives.

    Ironically, if the drones weren’t used and the Jihadists were captured, they’d likely be tortured at camp X-ray instead. So what’s better – being taken out quickly by drone strike or tortured for years when finally being captured after killing, maiming and ruining more lives than would have happened if they’d been taken out earlier? Creating the future problem of what to do with enemy soldiers and evil masterminds who will return to try and kill us all at the first chance they get but whose legal treatment has become too controversial and too much of a problem for anyone to do anything with for who knows how long? Who can’t be tried or released? Terrorist soldiers know what they’re getting into and if they don’t, tough for them.

    Moral of the story – don’t become a *&^%$#@! (censored -ed) Jihadist terrorist! Because that means you do face torture and /or death. Just, I don’t know, do something better with your life, your choice.

    I don’t like or support torture, btw. Its just the reality and we’re far less guilty of it than the other side, sad as that may be. Again, the whole situation came about why? Because Jihadists want to destroy us and are willing to keep killing innocent people until they obtain that dreadful goal..

    Emphasis added.

    Note the italics are the words PZ Myers quoted in banning me (#600 T-dome-31, 2013 August 29th ) which rhetorically implies that torture is worse than a quick, relatively clean and painless death whilst the bold is what I directly stated about the ethics of torture. Notably that I don’t like or support it, think its horrible and indeed think that its worse than a clean death by UAV strike.

    So whilst PZ Myers said I was defending torture, I actually wasn’t.

    Seems to me that my “sin” there was simply saying I had no sympathy for terrorists – and also I think because I argued strongly in support of Israel and its right to defend itself and exist in peace.

    Also I guess because I unknowingly commented after PZ asked me not to do because I didn’t refresh in time and missed seeing PZ Myers comment #595 which, okay, mea culpa I should’ve refreshed first.

    And, yes, I feel upset and wronged by that and think it was unjust.

    Its even more unjust and wrong that some of those pro-Islamist commenters I sparred with and defeated in several arguments on Pharyngula have continued to lie about and attack me incl. organising pile-ons against me on other FTB blogs from Pharyngula; a venue where I cannot participate to defend myself. What cowardly hypocrites those people are!

  20. Mano Singham says

    StevoR @#17,

    What has the fact that you advocated mass murder in a post two years ago got to do with anything. Is there some kind of statute of limitations on advocating mass murder?

    What has the fact that you said it on another blog got to do with anything? Either you advocated mass murder or did not and your plain words convict you of doing so. I will repeat below what I wrote in another thread in response to you trying to weasel out of taking responsibility for your own words.

    You HAVE CLEARLY advocated using nuclear weapons. You may try to weasel out of it now but your plain words convict you of supporting mass murder, and that is despicable.

    Your talking of innocent and guilty nations is ridiculous and reveals a lack of even logical thought. When you drop nuclear weapons you kill and injure vast numbers people indiscriminately.

    You have advocated mass murder on an unspeakable scale and that makes you a morally depraved person.

    When did you apologize for your sentiments? Saying you were drunk and tired is not an apology, just an excuse to try and weasel out. I have been around enough drunk people to believe in the truth of the phrase in vino veritas, that alcohol does not cause people to say things they disagree with, it merely loosens their inhibitions so that they say things they believe but would normally not say publicly. Drunk people seem to think that saying they were drunk is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    How can you also say that you did not mean it seriously? What kind of person jokes about things like that and then justifies it?

    Sorry, your excuses are just that, excuses, trying to avoid taking responsibility for having heinous views. A groveling apology (not excuses) is the first step in rehabilitating yourself from being a person who advocates mass murder.

    And please stop whining about being bullied. It is unseemly for someone who has advocated dropping nuclear weapons on people to complain about being at the receiving end of mere words .

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @Mano
    You sir are awesome. Linking to that scene makes you my new favorite person for the day.

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