Give Me Liberty

This piece by Glenn Greenwald (in the Washington Post! Yay Glenn!) explores a theme I have consistently articulated- United States citizens are, collectively, cowards.

We routinely accept 32,675 traffic deaths annually (2014 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for whom I occasionally work, the most recent complete report available) and panic over the infinitesimal chance that we’ll be killed by terrorists, a term that by definition does not include White Males inspired by Christian Fundamentalism, Racism, or Guns but does include, also by definition, every one who is Muslim or has an Arabic sounding name.

The FBI was right not to arrest Omar Mateen before the shooting
By Glenn Greenwald, Washington Post
June 17 at 8:16 AM

Ever since the Sept. 11 attack almost 15 years ago, every act of perceived terror, and even thwarted ones, have triggered identical responses. The Boston Marathon attack, for instance, prompted this critique of the bureau, which had looked into the older brother: “Many people thought the FBI should have continued to investigate [Tamerlan] Tsarnaev until the Boston plot was uncovered,” David Gomez recalled this week in Foreign Policy. About Orlando, he wrote: “As more terrorists become successful in hiding from the FBI in plain sight using encryption and other means, perhaps it is time to revisit the probable-cause standard to open investigations in potential terrorism cases.”

Underlying this mind-set is an assumption that is both dubious and dangerous: that absolute security is desirable and attainable. None say that explicitly, but it’s the necessary implication of the argument. Once this framework is implicitly adopted, a successful attack becomes proof that something went wrong, law enforcement failed to act properly and more government authorities are needed. To wit: Hillary Clinton this week proposed an “intelligence surge” to halt “plots before they can be carried out.” And Donald Trump called for more intelligence activity to give “law enforcement and the military the tools they need to prevent terrorist attacks.”

This is wrong, and based on what we know, the FBI acted properly. Agents have the power they need, and they were right to close the case on Mateen. Just because someone successfully carried out a violent mass attack does not prove that police powers were inadequate or that existing powers were misapplied. No minimally free society can prevent all violence. In the United States, we do not hold suspects for crimes they have not committed.

It is possible, indeed probable, that violent attacks will occur even with superb law enforcement. This is the tradeoff we make for liberty.

The complaint that the FBI, once it had Mateen under suspicion, should have acted more aggressively to stop him illustrates a kind of pathology.

When the FBI has reason to suspect someone of extremist activity, they open an investigative file and gather whatever information they can. But once they conclude that there is no evidence of criminality, they close the file. That’s how it should be: none of us should want permanent inquiries on citizens about whom there is no evidence of lawbreaking, and we should certainly not want punishments meted out based on unproven suspicions. The FBI followed these principles in closing its file on Mateen, and it deserves praise for that, not armchair criticism. “As I would hope the American people would want, we don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” FBI Director James Comey said. If agents “don’t see predication for continuing it, then we close it.”

What plausible theory exists for empowering the government to restrict the actions, rights or liberty of a citizen who has broken no laws? For obvious reasons, the temptation to vest more power in law enforcement agencies is potent after witnessing carnage like what we’ve seen this week in Orlando.

(H)istory leaves no doubt about the serious costs, and dangers, from straying too far on the liberty-security axis. Encouraging law enforcement agencies to take action against citizens who are not even charged with, let alone convicted of, breaking the law is inherently abusive, and certain to lead to its own serious injuries.

Those dangers are vividly seen by examining the long list of American Muslims who have arrived at an airport expecting to travel, only to be told that they have been secretly deemed by unidentified officials as too suspicious to board an airplane, and have no effective recourse to challenge or even learn the basis for this restriction. That Democrats, who once found such due-process-free no-fly lists appalling, now seek in the wake of San Bernardino and Orlando to expand their use to ban gun purchases illustrates how easily terror attacks induce an abandonment of reasoned analysis.

We collectively understand tradeoffs in many other contexts. Outside of disease and suicide, the most common cause of death for Americans is fatal car accidents. Roughly 36,000 people died from car-related deaths in 2015 (gun deaths are a close second). There are numerous measures that could be taken to reduce car accidents: lowering speed limits, bolstering safety regulations for automakers, putting stop signs and lights on every corner. But our reflexive response to reading about an auto fatality is not to demand implementation of these measures.

That’s because we rationally assess that this fatality level — tragic and horrifying as it is — is the worthwhile cost paid in exchange for the benefits of efficient auto travel and affordable cars. We understand that absolute safety on the road is neither attainable nor desirable – and that we can minimize, but cannot fully avoid, the risk of injury or death if we want to use automobiles efficiently. We accept that some deaths are inevitable.

That mind-set does far more harm than good. In the wake of Sept. 11, it ushered in the Patriot Act, mass surveillance, torture and two decade-long wars. It led to the official dilution of Miranda rights for terrorism suspects after Omar Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit in 2010 with a bomb in his underwear. And it led Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to advocate new and aggressive responses to Orlando: from an escalation of the bombing campaign against various ISIS locales to increased surveillance activities.

Terror attacks, by design, succeed in terrorizing. If you are a resident of any western country, it is more likely that you will die from a lightning strike than from a terrorist attack perpetrated by a Muslim. Writing in The New Yorker in early this year, the physicist Lawrence Krauss noted that “even if you include 9/11, the total death toll from terrorism amounts to less than one per cent of the death toll from gun violence.”

Hypothetically, there may one day be a threat severe enough to justify rebalancing security and liberty. But terrorism, by every metric, comes nowhere close. It is obviously unfortunate that nobody was able to stop Mateen, but that does not mean the FBI could or should have.

The price of liberty is blood. How far have we fallen from the Patriots of Valley Forge?


  1. Vent Hole

  2. “Bernardino and Orlando to expand their use to ban gun purchases illustrates how easily terror attacks induce an abandonment of reasoned analysis.”

    Actually what is going on is society has changed and as a result those holding to outdated ideas such as yourself refuse to recognized that change. One real hard change is the amount of attacks that use military style assault rifles. I am a veteran and I have yet to have anyone that wants to own or currently owns these type of weapons to adequately explain civilian use or need of them. Most that I have seen screaming wanting to own them have had no military experience by the way or were dishonorably discharged. The others are gang members, I imagine these are the ones that I have listed that you are concerned about their guns being taken away.

    Guns taken away let us see what the US Constitution clearly says on the subject.

    If we look it clearly brings out “A well regulated” these are part of the key words as well “Militia”.

    Well Regulated means Congress has the right to decide upon conditions of the 2nd Amendment rights.

    Militia- key words in this are civilian TRAINED again Congress would have the right to decide who trains the militia or who is a recognized member of the Militia.

    Maybe one of the best ways to settle this argument when others bring out original intent then lets go full original and only allow weapons of the time period of the writing of the 2nd Amendment, there that should work for you. A lot less people would die then for it takes real time to reload.
    Far as anyone trying to support civilians owning Military style weapons. Please take your argument to the cemeteries and see if any of the dead killed by these style of weapons and convince them.

    1. Really? Well, they’re not my words but Glenn Greenwald’s and as author and editor I do have discretion who I quote and what appears on the page and defend them in my own inferior style.

      Oh, by the way, thank you for visiting. I hope I’m amusing enough to keep you coming back.

      About original intent- I am in fact romantic enough to believe that the full Bill of Rights, from Free Speech and Assembly to Powers Not Specifically Delegated is all about the domination of Imperial Britain and the injustices it inflicted. It does not do to limit weapons to those current in the 18th century, some of which were quite advanced and innovative (the long rifle, the submarine). Philosophically I would contend that one of the reasons for the Second Amendment is specifically to allow for armed rebellion against a tyrannical state.

      Historically I also recognize the influence of the desire to maintain superiority in the event of a Slave Rebellion, suppression of indigenous people, and a general ‘gun culture’ that contrasted sharply with Europe where only aristocrats were allowed to have guns and hunt.

      Umm… I don’t think the founders intended it to be restricted, indeed I often argue, mostly as a joke, that the government should be required to provide each citizen with their own personal nuclear device.

      We pause now to point out that it’s mostly a joke.

      Well ek, what about the “collateral damage” of innocents?

      Speaking of tyrannical governments, we have one right now that thinks it’s a-ok to mount aggressive wars, torture, and assassinate folks en mass based on the color of their skin (profiling); not to mention constantly spying on their own citizens, ignoring their votes, and profiting from corruption.

      Am I happy? Ask my therapist.

      The reason AR 15s are popular is because they are easy to shoot and the ammo is cheap. AK 47s are nearly as popular because they are low maintenance but the ammo is more expensive.

      Are they effective? Well… look at the success of Afghanistan and Iraq and you tell me.

      The genie is out of the bottle. You can’t disguise the fact that the United States is permeated with guns (I personally don’t own any and haven’t shot anything but a bolt action .22). You can build a fully automatic M 16 out of parts that are freely available on the Internet. Likewise an AK which is designed to be produced with a few machine tools. In short I don’t think regulation of hardware works. Here’s a long range sniper rifle. Gonna regulate the Optics? I know people who grind their own glass and it’s a 17th century technology.

      Because it is old, documented, and easy to reproduce, what are you going to do?

      I personally think the only thing you can do is accept the losses as the price of liberty, mourn and praise those who are brave enough to sacrifice their lives in it’s pursuit, and work in the war of hearts and minds to make it clear that this kind of violence is unacceptable.

      I never advocate anything except non-violent resistance. You can say NO until you die. In the short run this seems counter-intuitive but as we have seen recently it’s capable of great societal change.

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