The Cost of More Security Is a Reduced Tolerance for the Risks That Make Life Great

As we grow more secure, our tolerance for any remaining risk, or even any potential risk, gets smaller.

According to a 19th-century composer named Francis Scott Key, the United States is the "land of the free and the home of the brave." If he were writing those lyrics today, he might add an asterisk with the notation: "Void in the aftermath of terrorism."

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, many people resolved not to let themselves be terrorized. It's obviously impossible to secure every inch of a 26.2-mile race course, but so what? Boston is not going to be scared into giving it up.

danfinkelstein / photo on flickrdanfinkelstein / photo on flickr"Next year's marathon will be even bigger and better," promised Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz told a Fenway Park crowd, "This is our (expletive) city. Nobody is going to dictate our freedom."

A spirit of bold defiance was exactly right, sending mass murderers the message: You can kill some of us, but you can't kill us all, and you can't frighten us from living our lives as free people.

But as in past episodes, that reaction was not universal, particularly in Washington. Sometimes, the preferred view is: Make us safe, no matter what the price.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the government went so far as to classify American citizens as "enemy combatants" and strip them of constitutional protections. Some 1,200 other people living here were secretly arrested and jailed. We invaded Iraq fearing it had weapons of mass destruction that might be used against us.

In retrospect, it's clear the administration overreacted again and again. It was hardly the first to do so: During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Not until 1988 did Congress apologize for mistakes caused by "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

That regrettable experience did not inoculate us against hysterical responses. Fear doesn't always strike out.

An essential feature of free, democratic societies is to respect fundamental liberties even if they may impede the quest for absolute safety. We uphold the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches even though it lets some criminals get away. We maintain the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms even though some gun owners commit crimes.

But terrifying events can warp our judgment, as the Boston Marathon bombings did. Republican senators urged that the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, be designated an enemy combatant so he could be detained without charges and interrogated at length without a lawyer.

Others wanted the administration to use a "public safety" exception to avoid reading him his Miranda rights until he could be questioned to the FBI's content -- something permitted under a corrosive 2010 policy adopted by President Barack Obama's Justice Department.

The administration ultimately rejected both options, possibly because it feared being overruled by the courts for violating the clear commands of the Constitution. But the advocates are not scrupulous about such obligations. They believe those have to be curbed to defuse dangers our shortsighted founders didn't foresee.

But they did. They just weren't willing to put public security above individual rights. "Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct," warned Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. "Even the most ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates." He and his colleagues designed the Constitution to avert that temptation.

The willingness to trample on rights rests on the dream of being utterly immune to our enemies. That fantasy was behind the invasion of Iraq, a faraway country with a puny military that posed no threat to the United States. It manifested a stubborn national impulse.

"For more than two centuries, America has aspired to a condition of perfect safety from foreign threats," wrote James Chace and Caleb Carr in their 1988 book, "America Invulnerable." But every time we complete a major effort to attain that security, we have "found ourselves exposed to a new array of foreign threats." The safer we are the more we yearn for protection.

The same holds for terrorism, foreign or homegrown. Americans are amazingly safe from these attacks, which are rare and getting rarer. But as we grow more secure, our tolerance for any remaining risk, or even any potential risk, gets smaller.

It's a losing game. We can't reduce the risk to zero no matter what we do. So we might as well maintain our liberties, muster our courage and take our chances. Because, as David Ortiz might say, it's our (expletive) Constitution.

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  • kinnath||

    The vast majority of people (around the world) cannot understand the fundamentals of probability and risk management. If they did, most of them would be terrified to get out of bed in the morning.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Quite the opposite, k. Things that have people all riled up and fretful are the things that a dispassionate risk analysis would show have vanishingly small chances of happening.

  • kinnath||

    People ingore real risks in their lives and fixate on highly-improbable events.

    My claim was that the bedwetters would be to afraid to leave their beds if they actually understood the real risks they face every day.

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  • pmains||

    Is there any risk involved?

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Oddly enough, you both have a cogent points.

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  • well||

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  • John Tagliaferro||

    They are rare and getting rarer because the "dejected, marginalized" utes of the 1960s got jobs as professors. Their students became our policy makers to fulfill the mission of Stalin's revolution.

  • space junk||

    Nice 'My Cousin Vinny' reference there.

  • Night Watchman||

    "There is no safety this side of the grave." -- Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

  • Radioactive||

    those who would trade freedom for security deserve or obtain either...

  • Radioactive||

    neither

  • Cervantes||

    I've just realized this, is it not possible to edit or delete comments after the fact?

  • $park¥||

    People who jump in a metal box and go 80 mph on a narrow paved strip with 100 other metal boxes going 80 mph multiple times are worried about the possibility of a man with a bomb showing up at their house.

  • UnCivilServant||

    What about those of us who end up going 60 mph on a narrow paved strip with 100 other metal boxes trying to go 80?

  • ||

    Then, you are being dangerous. The speed is not nearly as dangerous as the differentials in speed.

  • $park¥||

    I think it's more like being stuck in rush hour traffic where everyone is trying to go 20 mph faster than the flow of traffic is actually moving. A daily occurrence all over MA.

  • ||

    I think this is an extremely important topic. Fear, above all else, is responsible for the destruction of liberty. It is used as a weapon by politicians and as a marketing tool in the media.

    When did it become okay to be cowardly? When did safety become more important than honor/liberty?

    I think it's important to publicly call pussies, pussies. Let people know that there is disgrace in cowardice.

  • mgd||

    When did it become okay to be cowardly?
    Starting in 1920, when the 19A was ratified? Not trying to be sexist or argue against women being allowed to vote, but generally women care more about safety than men.

    I'm probably going to get tarred for this.

  • Jefferson's Ghost||

    tar tar tar feather feather....nah you're correct

  • The Late P Brooks||

    My claim was that the bedwetters would be to afraid to leave their beds if they actually understood the real risks they face every day.

    Bathrooms, stairs, cars...

  • H. ReardEn||

    Bedbugs!

  • Radioactive||

    does bedwetting get rid of bed bugs?

  • kinnath||

    I knew a guy who was in his late 40s when he fell off a step ladder and died a few hours later.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I've been lurking on the comment threads for a while and thought I would finally sign up and chime in on this. I don't think people are motivated so much by fear for themselves as much as they are by the suffering they see inflicted on other people. It's easy to argue that the threat for any one person is small. It seems much harder to argue against the emotional desire to prevent very public displays of mass suffering, because that does indirectly affect a lot more people than any one terrorist attack or mass shooting.

  • $park¥||

    I'd argue that many people aren't afraid until something happens to them or close to them. How many people just love stupid laws until it affects them or their kid? You see this regularly with people who love the TSA until their 4-year-old in a wheelchair gets felt up. I'll agree somewhat that the size of certain events may make people a little more gun shy.

  • space junk||

    'I don't think people are motivated so much by fear for themselves as much as they are by the suffering they see inflicted on other people.'

    I think you can set some blame on the media for this. It is no longer journalism, its infotainment. And they get all sensational about stuff. But hey, most people don't like to think anymore. They run with whatever the media spews out. And that is how you get a mentally dim society that has no respect for freedom in the face of negatively graphic imagery.

  • GroundTruth||

    Dan Rather is at the top of that list... for about 2 decades it seemed he had the nightly "aint it terribles". Sad thing is, when I said it then, no one listened. And lo, most of them still don't want to hear it.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I don't think people are motivated so much by fear for themselves as much as they are by the suffering they see inflicted on other people.

    I think they want to be protected from stories which make them feel sad. "Oh, those poor babies! We should ban guns, because HEARING SAD STORIES ABOUT DEAD BABIES MAKES ME SAD! I NO WANTZ DA SADZ!"

    Shit happens. Cancel your subscription to the fucking newspaper, and leave me out of it.

  • hotsy totsy||

    From what I've observed, young parents are way more worried about GMOs than they are their kid gets injured on a skateboard.

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  • Agile Cyborg||

    Security equals more power. And power always equates to increased violence. Ultimately, the state will demean and injure the balanced society as it acquires the means to limit and forbid. This isn't simply a case of 'terrorism winning' it really is a case of how can we, the state, use terror to win increased power.

    There is ZERO ZERO ZERO incentive for any elite law enforcement agency to root out and bring to justice 'terrorists'. In fact, these agencies are rewarded with more power and instruments of control when violent criminal acts unfold.

    Am I being too cynical?

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