Perl/Dylan Geek Alert

I just disabled an error message in one of my Perl scripts, with the explanatory comment:

# I used to care, but things have changed

Hope that doesn't come back to bite me. But there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

Last Modified 2012-10-23 1:59 PM EDT

Cato's Healy Disappoints on Terror

It's only been a few days since Atlantic Monthly landed on my doorstep with the James Fallows cover article "Declaring Victory". The entire story is only available to subscribers on-web, but you can read the summary for yourself:

The United States is succeeding in its struggle against terrorism. The time has come to declare the war on terror over, so that an even more effective military and diplomatic campaign can begin.
And this morning we awake to news of the foiled (and we hope it's completely foiled) plot to blow up multiple airliners over American cities. But, as Fallows says, the war on terror is over. So, whatever happens, we can be glad about that.

Gene Healy is Senior Editor at the libertarian Cato Institute. On the Cato@Liberty blog (in a post from a couple days ago), he deems Fallows' article to be "important" and "brave". And his reasoning about the "brave" part is kind of poignant today:

… because one subway bombing while this issue's on the stands and Fallows's name might become the punchline to a thousand bitter jokes about pollyannaish predictions.
If the current plot had been successful, the death toll would probably have been in the thousands, probably outdoing your average subway bombing by an order of magnitude or so. So bump up the "bitter joke" estimate appropriately: say around 10,000.

But Healy's argument is still worth considering:

But if and when another attack happens, it won't disprove Fallows's point: we do not now, if we ever did, face an existential threat from the likes of Al Qaeda. As he puts it, "terrorists, through their own efforts, can damage, but not destroy us. Their real destructive power lies in what they can provoke us to do."
That's not a new argument, of course. It's been around, in one form or another for about, oh, almost five years now. The classic formulation is "If X, then the terrorists have won." (21,600 hits on the Google, as I type; Wikipedia even has an entry.)

Just because it's old doesn't make it wrong, though. Let's press on:

If fear, not reason, governs our reaction to terrorism, then Al Qaeda can provoke us into launching unnecessary wars and abandoning the constitutional protections we cherish.
So Healy takes brave stands (a) against fear; and (b) for reason; (c) against "unnecessary" wars; and (d) for constitutional protections, at least the ones that we cherish. Anyone want to take the opposing side on any of those? Raise your hands out there … I hear crickets chirping.

Does it get any better than this? Fortunately, yes, a little:

If we proclaim this conflict World War III (or IV—the hawks appear divided on this point, if on little else), then certain consequences follow for the American constitutional order. Which is one reason why Fallows urges the abandonment of the war metaphor.
I'm actually kind of sympathetic to those who dislike the phrase "war on terror"; it's fundamentally obfuscatory and confusing to declare "war" on a tactic. Who says when it's over, how do we know we've won? ("Just ask James Fallows" is maybe not a good answer.)

But on the other hand, whatever "metaphor" we use, we don't want people blowing up planes. Especially we don't want people blowing up planes while we're figuring out—not what to do to thwart them—but what to call what we're doing to thwart them.

Of course, Al Qaeda is a threat that should be taken very seriously—in some ways, more seriously than the adminstration has in the past. But for nearly five years, too much of the public debate over foreign threats has been dominated by breathless hysteria. The soundbite "the Constitution is not a suicide pact" has become the tell-it-to-the-hand of constitutional debate, as if it is a given that unless we gut the document, we will be committing national suicide. Peace and liberty don't do well in an atmosphere of panic. Fallows's calm, sober optimism serves as a useful corrective.

Some good points there, of course, but it's (really) less than helpful to deem the policies you dislike to have been a product of "breathless hysteria" and an "atmosphere of panic." Is there any real evidence of that? Is that really the best explanation? I doubt it.

Hypothetical: suppose (just suppose) one key to preventing the latest plot was one of the (allegedly) Constitution-skirting procedures Healy deplores. Specifically, if not for one of those nasty NSA warrantless wiretaps, we'd currently be watching news reports of a half-dozen planes plummeting into various American cities.

Healy seems blithe about that tradeoff. I suspect he'd probably not want to think about the possibility that such a tradeoff might even exist.

Admittedly, I find it difficult myself. I'm mainly just relieved as hell that my daughter returned from Europe two weekends ago, instead of this weekend. And I'm fairly certain I'm grateful that Healy's not calling the shots on acceptable anti-terror tactics.

I haven't read the Fallows article yet; I hope it's better than Healy's take on it.