Preparing for the Worst, In Light of New Information

by Neil H. Buchanan

Although the Republicans' reactions to the terrorist attacks in Paris vacillate between horrifying and disgusting, there are important questions to ask about whether there are reasonable and appropriate responses going forward.  As I noted in my Dorf on Law post this past Thursday, we are fortunate that the current occupant of the White House is an adult, and there is at least a good chance that his replacement will be a woman who -- despite her longtime tendency to play politics with important issues -- would certainly not do any of the crazy and self-defeating things that her Republican opponents have proposed.

One thing we have learned in the last week, which is both reassuring and obvious in retrospect, is that the government of the United States already was taking extraordinary measures to make sure that refugees who apply for asylum in the U.S. are carefully scrutinized, all but eliminating the possibility that would-be terrorists could infiltrate the United States through our asylum system.  If anything, in fact, the system was already far too restrictive, with 18-24 month waits the norm for people who are truly in desperate situations.  But to listen to Republicans (and the 47 cowardly Democrats who voted for a House bill all but banning Syrian refugee immigration), the pre-Paris system in this country involved letting untold numbers of people cross the border, no questions asked.  That was obviously absurd, but even as the specifics of the system that is already in place became more widely known, the Republicans have not backed away from their claims that the borders should essentially be closed (as if that were even possible) to people fleeing terrorist violence.

In my post last Thursday, I argued that, in their mass freak-out after the latest terrorist attacks, the Republicans were relying on an "implicit assumption that we could have taken care of this already, but we just were not yet mad enough to do something about it."  I then asked rhetorically, "Can any sane person really think that there was some sensible and effective strategy that we have been keeping on the shelf, just in case we really get pissed off someday?"

As far as it goes, I am still happy with that argument.  It is only a useful response, however, to this strange claim that the right strategy now -- but apparently not before now -- is to "take them out," as if that option had been available all along.  It was not, and it is not.  Even if we were willing to take Senator Cruz's depraved advice to set aside restraints designed to avoid civilian deaths, we have tried the "bomb them back to the Stone Age" strategy before, with (and I will try to be understated here) notably unsatisfying results.  Even with overwhelming military superiority, and even with a willingness to inflict mass death on the world, we would not be able to find and kill all of the people who pose a threat to us.  And even if we did, our tactics in doing so would simply make more people willing to take their places.

My argument should not, however, be read to say that we are already doing everything right.  When I say that we are already doing more than enough to root out terrorists among potential refugee admittees, and that there are no magic military strategies that we could adopt at any time, I am not offering the strategic equivalent of the conservatives' silliest argument against government policies to solve economic problems: "If it was such a good idea, we would be doing it already."

We do, of course, always want to update our strategies and self-imposed limits in light of new information.  In the Nineteenth Century, small farmers on the prairies would generally be happy to have a town sheriff to take care of law and order, but if there were a big new threat that suddenly appeared, the people would form a posse and try to deal with that threat.  Of course, as I also noted in last Thursday's post, the Republicans' calls to arm the populace now are the worst version of that strategy.  And we know that posses were often ugly in practice, perpetrating great injustices in the panic and fury of supposed threats that were often based on bad information.

Still, when a situation seems to have become notably more dangerous, it obviously makes sense to adjust our responses.  Prior to the U.S.'s involvement in WWII, social norms generally prevented women from working outside of the home, especially in the very dangerous factories of the time.  In the face of an existential threat posed by the Nazi regime, however, this country quite sensibly saw a different set of risks that required changing the rules of social order.  (I am not, of course, endorsing the sexist attitudes that were temporarily set aside during the war.  I am simply saying that even deeply held attitudes can be changed by extreme circumstances.)

The worst conclusion that one can draw from the idea that "everything is different now" is that all the rules can be dropped.  We did that during WWII, when we put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and I suppose it should not be as surprising as it is that there is actually some talk now about adopting policies that would replicate one of the lowest moments in American history -- a moment that was endorsed by politicians of both parties, and even approved by the supposedly independent Supreme Court.

Even though it is not true that we should change everything when we become scared, however, it is reasonable to ask at all times what we might do differently, in light of new events and evidence.  Screening for weapons on commercial airplanes became sensible, in my view, after a series of incidents in the 1970's (maybe earlier), in which it became clear that weapons posed a unique threat in the confines of a pressurized flying tube.  As I noted in my Verdict column last week, the evidence suggests that the changes to airline security after the 9/11 attacks did little or no additional good, but that is surely not a reason to conclude that we would want to keep doing what we have been doing, no matter what new evidence were to come along.

The good news is that smart, motivated people have already been thinking about these issues for decades, and (despite the constant noise from the political process) our strategies are already designed to change in light of new evidence.  That is, we are not already doing everything right in a way that would not change in light of new developments, but it is not too much of a stretch to say that we are already set up to figure out how to make changes as they become necessary.

This is surely not a full-on defense of technocracy.  In the area of security more than possibly any other area of policy, our technocrats are all too often willing to take their missions to extremes in the pursuit of their narrow vision of being tough and effective.  If anything, our processes need more restraints on the technocrats, not fewer.  But given the continuing parade of horribles that is the Republican presidential field, one can at least take some comfort in the idea that our system is surprisingly adaptive and does not need to be radically altered in light of even horrifying events such as the attacks in Paris, Mali and elsewhere.