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.