The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Modest Reaction to HARPA

The Washington Post reports:

The White House is considering a controversial proposal to study whether mass shootings could be prevented by monitoring mentally ill people for small changes that might foretell violence.

Former NBC Chairman Bob Wright, a longtime friend and associate of President Trump’s, has briefed top officials, including the president, the vice president and Ivanka Trump, on a proposal to create a new research agency called HARPA to come up with out-of-the-box ways to tackle health problems, much like DARPA does for the military, say several people who have briefed.

. . .

Advisers to Wright quickly pulled together a three-page proposal — called SAFEHOME for Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes – which calls for exploring whether technology like phones and smart watches can be used to detect when mentally ill people are about to turn violent.

At first, I was horrified by this idea. But then I remembered that it’s “time for leadership” and that we have to “do something,” and all my objections disappeared upon the instant. Sure, there are obvious Fourth Amendment problems here. But, when you think about it, there’s no way that the Founding Fathers could have imagined cell phones or smart watches (where exactly does the Constitution mention them!?) — and, anyway, if you read the Fourth Amendment’s text you’ll notice that it uses the same “right of the people” language as does the Second Amendment, and that it should therefore be read to apply not to individuals but collectively.

The question we have to ask here is whether the freedom to use a high-bandwidth telephone is really more important than the lives of our kids. As the Trump administration has made clear, HARPA wouldn’t ban cell phones outright; it would just impose some common sense safety regulations on their use. What’s the problem? As one of the project’s architects has asked:

“To those who say this is a half-baked idea, I would say, ‘what’s your idea? What are you doing about this?’ ” said Geoffrey Ling, the lead scientific adviser on the HARPA proposal.

Exactly!

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