Politics & Policy

Lame Excuses

Domestic-security issues.

There’s a big difference between excuses and arguments. For example, “I can’t do it now, I’ve only seen this part of Roadhouse 612 times” is an excuse for not mowing the lawn. “I mowed the lawn yesterday” is an argument. In the wake of the London bombings, it seems we’re hearing a lot of excuses but not a lot of arguments for why we shouldn’t do certain things. “I just don’t want to” appears to be the animating spirit of opponents to increased preparedness.

Take closed-circuit security cameras in public areas, like they have in London. I don’t like the idea that much myself–it just feels icky–so I’m a bit sympathetic to those who oppose such things here. But at the end of the day, opponents are offering excuses–not arguments–for their recalcitrance.

Opponents say it’s an intrusion into privacy. No, it’s not. A policeman–or anybody else not burdened with a restraining order (man, I hate those things)–can watch you in a public area to his or her heart’s content. That’s why they call it a public area. It isn’t any more of an infringement if they watch you with an unhidden camera than if they do it with their naked eyeballs.

Another claim is that cameras won’t prevent attacks. Well, who says? Doesn’t it become slightly more problematic for a terrorist cell to send one of its stooges to his death if his face can be traced back to the mosque from which he came? Isn’t it possible that cameras, combined with other intelligence, may alert authorities that an area’s being cased before the actual attack?

When that line fails, opponents of security cameras fall back on my own sentiment. “It’s just icky”–i.e., it will have a “chilling effect.” “When citizens are being watched by the authorities,” whines Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, “they are more self-conscious and less freewheeling.”

Actually, there’s very little evidence of this. (Has no one at the ACLU been watching any of the “caught on video” TV shows?) But there is a great deal of evidence that decent citizens become a lot more freewheeling when they think there are no terrorists or criminals around.

Besides, is it so outrageous that preventing a suicide bombing might come at the cost of certain folks moderately curbing their wild, freewheeling ways on the morning train to work? Either that or some accountants will have to live with the fact that somewhere at police headquarters there’s a video of them wearing one of those Carmen Miranda fruit-basket hats on the 8:15 train from the suburbs.

Or consider New York’s new policy of having the cops search the bags of passengers on New York subways. No one is shocked that the New York Civil Liberties Union is aghast. They say it’s an infringement of people’s constitutional rights and will do nothing to prevent terrorism. Well, I suppose it is a very low-level infraction, on the order of the tyranny of airport searches. But somehow most people still think they live in a free country when they fly to Tampa.

It’s flatly batty, however, to argue that such searches will do nothing to prevent terrorism. Sure, it may not do enough, but it will surely do something. Presumably young Pakistani or Arab terrorist men will have a slightly more difficult time carrying backpacks full of bombs, nails, and broken glass into the subway, and blowing them(selves) up at the moment of maximum damage.

Which brings us to complaints over racial profiling. Man, this is getting old. Look, outside of Israel and Russia, the number of female suicide bombers is close to zero. Should 50 percent of the scrutiny fall on women? The number of non-Muslim suicide bombers is even closer to zero. So why should police search the handbag of a Norwegian granny holding hands with her granddaughter? To round out the diversity of the statistics?

Many say this will “do nothing to stop another Tim McVeigh.” This is so cheap. After all, the people arguing that profiling won’t catch the McVeighs of the world aren’t in favor of searches at all. It’s not like their preferred policy is more likely to catch white terrorists. It’s just that their preferred policy is less likely to catch non-white terrorists. The upshot of their position is that it’s somehow unfair that, in a generally more secure environment, white Christian terrorists would have a slight advantage over non-white Muslim ones. Yet nobody says the police are duty-bound to search only South Asians, Muslims, and men. If that shifty-eyed Norwegian granny’s hand-bag has wires coming out of it, I say, “Swarm!”

But the most dishonest argument about security cameras, searches, profiling, etc.–one we hear constantly–is that they won’t stop terrorism. Well, no one thing will stop terrorism. But to conclude, therefore, that we shouldn’t do anything–that’s not an argument, it’s an excuse. And a bad one.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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