“We are at war” seems to be an excuse these days for nearly any instance of government misbehavior or illegality. It is generally acknowledged and accepted that during wartime, acts that would be unthinkable during a time of peace are easily excused. It is horrifying to reflect upon the bombing of Dresden, which claimed more than 20,000 lives, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which wiped over 150,000 souls off the face of the earth. In retrospect, we might question the wisdom of these attacks (Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, maintained that dropping the bomb on Japan “was completely unnecessary”), but most Americans generally believe these events, however horrifying the cost might have been, were essential to protect and restore democracy. The same holds true for the war on terror, in which a wide variety of government abuses are frequently justified with the old edict that “we are at war.” Perhaps the best way to combat this line of thinking is to declare, officially and unequivocally, that the war on terror is over. If the idea of ending the war on terror is advanced throughout the halls of Congress and the public at large, many of the issues we contend with today, such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the legal and moral complications of drone strikes, and the normalization of sweeping executive power, could lose popular support.
Although I almost entirely disagreed with this Atlantic piece on what drone policy dissenters supposedly “get wrong,” there was one salient point made:
As someone who has spent over two years in combat, I suggest that the main point of moral judgment comes before one asks which means are legitimate when attacking an enemy. The main turning point concerns the question of whether we should fight at all. This is the crucial decision, because once we engage in armed conflict, we must assume that there are going to be many casualties on all sides. When we deliberate whether or not to fight, we should assume that once we step on this escalator, it will carry us to places we would rather not go.
It is often said by advocates of the war on terror that the struggle to eliminate terrorism is a unique war without borders or, oftentimes, clearly identifiable enemies. But labeling the fight against Islamic terrorism a “war” is merely a rhetorical justification for the seemingly unrestricted powers claimed by the Bush and Obama administrations to, among other things, assassinate suspects without judicial oversight or even public disclosure of the suspect’s alleged crimes, imprison innocent people in torturous facilities indefinitely, and refuse to investigate high-ranking officials who literally adopted and implemented enemy torture tactics. Lawlessness now pervades much of our government and many citizens accept this as a necessary extreme to ward off terrorist attacks, which are about as likely to claim the life of a U.S. citizen as a bolt of lightening.
We’ve overreacted to the threat of Islamic terrorism to such an extreme and alarming degree that many of us now strain to remember the years in which one did not face the real possibility of being groped by security agents at airports or corresponding with friends without the knowledge that the conversations, like billions of others annually stored in government databases, might be monitored. And what of the terrified Muslim communities infiltrated by government spies? Or the innocent Muslim Americans subjected to physical and verbal abuse by any hotheaded fool who happens to pass them on the street? Or the Congressional hearings that regard nearly all Muslims as potential enemies? In our self-absorbed, self-righteous anger, we often forget that the primary victims of Islamic terrorist attacks are innocent Muslims. We’ve learned, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, “to hate and fear” Muslim Americans, often regarding them “not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest.” It is not difficult to see that by degrading Muslims around the world, we have also degraded ourselves and our nation.
The sooner we roll back this war, the sooner we can restore our nation to normal, and the sooner we can go on living our lives without allowing a pack of murderers to forever disrupt them. In attempting to defend our “values” and our “way of life” from terrorism, we have too often destroyed those things ourselves.
To the problem of violence, there ought to be a path between callous indifference and total social warfare. And that’s why the miserable and absolute failure of gun control legislation in the Senate—just two days after the Boston bombing and on the same day of the West explosion—was especially galling. Like acts of terrorism, the murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School precipitated a national crisis. In the wake of that tragedy, our collective grief took a particular shape, the shape of democracy. The deaths of those school children were linked to the fate of more than 30,000 victims of gun violence each year, and the impulse to act was channeled through our democratic system, where an overwhelming majority of Americans and a majority of the US Senate expressed support for new gun laws, which were nonetheless defeated.
Last night, a Fox news anchor cited a poll that claimed that just 4 percent of Americans think gun control is the “the most important problem facing the country today.” Implicit in his commentary is the idea that because gun violence isn’t seen as the singularly most urgent issue, it isn’t an issue at all, that like workplace fatalities are to a modern economy, so gun violence is to the Second Amendment—just a cost we should get used to.
So America, here’s your scorecard for the week of April 15, 2013: callous indifference: 2, total warfare: 1.
This piece is brilliant. Please read in full at the link above.
In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.
Of the 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks last year, seventeen were private U.S. citizens, or .001 percent.
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.
The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators.
“In 2011 alone, the Transportation Security Administration’s 50,000 Transportation Security Officers screened more than 603 million passengers at 450 airports across the country and stopped more than 125,000 prohibited items at airport checkpoint, including over 1,300 firearms.”
Of the very small percentage of travelers attempting to bring firearms aboard a plane, we can assume that some of them brought their weapons by accident. We can also assume that a number of them brought weapons for self-defense purposes. Finally, we can assume that many more of them brought their firearms for reasons other than a desire to launch a terrorist attack.
So what percentage of the thousands of gun-wielding airline passengers are actual terrorists? We may never know the answer as the TSA keeps such facts hidden from public scrutiny due to “security concerns,” which seems to be justification for withholding any and all information these days.
But a more important question might be, have the countless delays, traveler aggravation, and public outrage been worth it? This question might be unanswerable as both the potential benefits and potential harm resulting from the TSA’s more invasive security techniques is very difficult to measure. How can one, for instance, calculate the number of travelers who have abandoned air travel due to constant delays and aggravation? How can one tally the number of terrorists who have abandoned their plots due to the TSA’s presence? How can one measure the psychological harm and distrust of government brought about by the many instances of disabled children and senior citizens being patted down by TSA agents?
Furthermore, it would be difficult to argue that the TSA is a major deterrent to terrorist attacks. The FBI and CIA seem to be relatively successful at stopping terrorist plots long before they occur. There are notable exceptions to their efficiency but one cannot deny that terrorist threats, whether from Islamic fundamentalists or anarchists, are eliminated on an almost monthly basis by federal agents.
However, ignoring the loathed pat-downs for a moment, a number of the TSA’s security tools are uncontroversial and seem to increase security while avoiding any breach on civil liberties. For instance, the TSA scans all bags for explosive devices. Training for Transportation Security Officers has become much more rigorous. Officers now have an average of over 3 years of job experience (compared to an average of 3 months before the TSA) and a turnover rate of 6 percent (compared to a whopping 125 percent before the TSA). The TSA also instituted more secure cockpit doors (seemingly a no-brainer) and dramatically increased the number of active Federal Air Marshals, from 33 pre-9/11 to thousands today. These measures, at least in theory, are sensible ways to improve airport security while not trespassing on anyone’s privacy.
So while it seems clear that the TSA has angered many Americans and invaded their privacy, there does not seem to be sufficient justification for ending the agency all together, as Senator Rand Paul wants to do. The TSA has become synonymous with pat-downs but this is only a portion of what the agency does on a daily basis. I think we should greatly reduce funding for the TSA (and defense spending in general) but let’s not make our cost-cutting decisions based solely on YouTube videos of granny getting a pat-down. We do not have to make a choice between “screw it, I’ll take my chances” and a police state. Reform is possible and desirable.
The rise of this national security state has entailed a vast expansion in the government’s powers that now touch every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism. Some 30,000 people, for example, are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications within the United States.
In the past, the U.S. government has built up for wars, assumed emergency authority and sometimes abused that power, yet always demobilized after the war. But this is, of course, a war without end.
So we continue to stand in absurd airport lines. We continue to turn down the visa applications of hundreds of thousands of tourists, businessmen, artists and performers who simply want to visit America and spend money here, and become ambassadors of good will for this country. We continue to treat even those visitors who arrive with visas as hostile aliens - checking, searching and deporting people at will. We continue to place new procedures and rules to monitor everything that comes in and out of the country, making doing business in America less attractive and more burdensome than in most Western countries.
We don’t look like people who have won a war. We look like scared, fearful, losers.