Rare Tragedies and Policy Changes


Gene Healy applies the post-Virginia Tech "let's not make any wrenching policy changes in reaction to very rare tragedies" logic to the domestic war on terror. A sample:

I'll grant that the future risk of terrorism is more uncertain than the background risk of school shootings. For that reason, I think the risk of terrorism requires a more vigorous policy response than does the risk of school shootings. But it's possible–indeed, likely–that the number of psychotic and potentially murderous young people in the United States with easy access to weapons is much greater than the number of active jihadists in America who have access to weapons or other deadly technology. And the policy responses liberals advocate to deal with the threat of school shootings (policies I totally oppose) are, on the whole, milder and less destructive than those that most right-wingers support to fight terrorism. Would that the Left could be as sober as the Right when it comes to gun policy, and the Right as sober as the Left when it comes to the allegedly existential threat of terrorism.

NEXT: False Lessons from an Atrocity

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  1. ah, Gene Healy. Truly, balm for the wounds of my soul.

  2. Given the following premises:

    1. If someone is willing to die in the process, prevention of a crime is more or less impossible
    2. Very few humans are willing to do so due to self interest and biological imperatives
    3. The ability of any individual to cause damage is relatively limited

    The writer’s conclusions are perfectly correct. As long as we keep WMD off the market and prosecute offenders competently, terrorism as a whole is not a particularly large threat, even unchecked. Preventing the proliferation of NBC weaponry should be our number one priority, but alas

  3. The terrorism threat will seem pretty existential if Al Qaeda gets hold of nukes or an effective biological weapon.

    Still, even here in Bushitler’s Amerikkka, it’s hard for anyone to find instances where people’s rights were abused by warrantless wiretapping or similar measures. A privacy watchdog group was brought in to see the measures taken to assure information gathered was used only for terrorism prevention, and left saying they wished they could disclose them to the public because they found them very reassuring and effective.

  4. Of course, the best answer is to reduce the number of criminally insane people who do these things.

  5. A handpicked “privacy watchdog group” said everything was kosher? The administration has very good reasons that they just can’t tell us? Why, I couldn’t imagine why we wouldn’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt after six years of such sterling performance!

  6. it’s hard for anyone to find instances where people’s rights were abused by warrantless wiretapping

    Unless you think that a warrantless wiretap by itself constitutes an abuse of government power. Whether or not the government is now using the warrantless wiretap in inappropriate ways is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the government should have that power. I submit that it should not have that power.

  7. if Al Qaeda gets hold of


  8. Jack:

    “relatively limited” is awfully vague, and “individual” is demonstrably inapplicable with al Qaeda and some other terrorist organizations. I don’t endorse every domestic-security measure since 9/11, but terrorism is a very significant threat — and if left “unchecked” it will certainly proliferate. (If terrorists knew they were not being seriously sought, monitored, and blocked, they could operate much more efficiently and probably attract more adherents.)

    I broadly agree with Healy, but some rare tragedies expose dramatic vulnerabilities that are worth fixing; others, not so much. Yes, Congress and the administration rushed long-term changes into place much too quickly, and some of those changes are a very bad idea. But the suggestion that we should not have significantly changed anything in response to 9/11, even after deliberation, seems to me profoundly foolish.

  9. That is an awesome point, I NEVER thought of it that way.

  10. Unless you think that a warrantless wiretap by itself constitutes an abuse of government power.

    Well, I would prefer that it were unnecessary (reducing the number of terrorists is better, e.g. by promoting liberal democracy), but I also want to reduce the risk Americans will be killed by terrorists.

    Now, if there were any evidence the data were being used to go after common criminals or for personal/political gain that would be an abuse and evidence the program should be shut down, but absent that I find it hard to criticize programs that only go after preventing terrorism, which falls outside the traditional law-enforcement paradigm since it needs to be prevented rather than prosecuted.

  11. Seems most policy changes these days are an overreaction to a rare event. Legislation as mundane and boring as SarBox (in response to Enron) can be compared the same way.

  12. I think a lot of this comes down to a culture issue. The right as a general rule doesn’t trust foreigners and is more willing to see danger when foreign elements are involved and tend to believe in the innate goodness of the average American. The left in contrast doesn’t trust Americans. The left is more willing to see danger when Americans are involved. They are less trustful of American society and tend to think of American society as inherently racist and violent. At the same time the left is a lot more trusting of foreigners and are always on the look out for the right to come up with a new form of McCarthyism.

    Thus when America is the victim of a terrorist attack conducted by foreign extremists the right looks at it as the start of things far worse to come if something isn’t done now and the left looks at it as an isolated incident and wonders why they hate us. When a lunatic American or resident alien in this case, goes crazy with a handgun on a college campus, the right’s response is to look at it as an isolated event that probably couldn’t have been prevented anyway and perhaps an argument for people to be more armed because again they trust and believe in the average person. The left in contrast looks at such an event as a symptom of worse things to come and another example of how American society is too violent to be trusted with weapons.

  13. Talldave:

    There have been numerous postings to this very magazine suggesting that provisions in the patriot act are being abused. A simple search for Patriot act and drugs will turn up a number of hits here.

    Justice Department accuses FBI of underreporting use of patriot act provisions:


    federal judge says the following:

    “Napolitano: We have not been attacked since 9/11. Who knows why? We wiped them out of Afghanistan. We inflicted enormous setbacks on them in Iraq. The government can take all the credit that it wants on the basis of the PATRIOT Act, but the government cannot point to a single successful prosecution for terrorist activity where the evidence obtained was under the PATRIOT Act–at least a successful prosecution that wasn’t overturned eventually. The PATRIOT Act creates one new independent crime, the crime of speaking. The rest of the PATRIOT Act does not create substantive crimes. It gives tools, unconstitutional tools, to law enforcers. They have used those tools, but they haven’t gotten a single prosecution for terrorist acts on the basis of it. They’ve gotten five prosecutions having to do with political corruption and drugs. One of the things that John Ashcroft gave to Congress in return for no debate was the sunset clause. The other was that the PATRIOT Act would only be used in the war on terror.”


    I’d find more but I have a time constraint.

  14. Careful, there, John Rhoads. You just quoted a hard-core (civil) libertarian saying implying that the war in the Middle East is why we haven’t been hit again here at home.

    And he’s absolutely right that the PATRIOT Act is a crock of shite. There’s nothing in it that prosecutors and drug warriors hadn’t been asking for years before 9/11. 9/11 just gave them the excuse they needed to do what they wanted to do all along.

  15. There is no comparison here. The shootings were the result of one crazy invidual who snapped. Could he have been spotted earlier? In hindsight, yes, but everything is clear in hindsight.

    AlQaeda and the other Islamic terrorist groups are, by contrast, organizations of thosands of individuals who operate under command structures, move millions of dollars through international finance channels, require logistical support, and engage in operations that take weeks or years to plan. Taking measures to discover and interrupt these activities is completely different from trying to stop a single person who decides to go on a rampage one day.
    You’ve heard of wars, right? They’re full of examples where violent organizations were brought down with information gathering and the application of force based on that information. For real. I don’t think Americans used to throw their hands up and say “Some days Japan is going to bomb our naval bases, there’s nothing we can do about it”.

  16. Well, there are a lot of provisions of the Patriot Act I don’t like. Warrantless wiretapping of international calls done under the aegis of protecting America from foreign attack doesn’t upset me, though. It strikes me as more of a national defense issue than a law enforcement matter.

    Dave makes a good point. It would have been ludicrous and suicidal to claim monitoring the communications of Japanese/German spies required a warrant. And in those days, saboteurs faced summary execution, not a Guantanamo vacation.

  17. Well, it may be that “in those days” in WW2 no warrant was necessary to intercept communications between Germans/Japanese and Americans. But the FISA statute didn’t exist until the 1970s, as I understand it. After its passage, it became unlawful to intercept those communications without complying with the law — which, I understand, the Bush Administration didn’t do (because it has claimed the inherent Constitutional authority to violate the law in this instance).

    You may agree or disagree with the Bush Administration’s argument (I don’t agree), but a reference to a time before the FISA statute really isn’t a fair comparison.

  18. it may be that “in those days” in WW2 no warrant was necessary to intercept

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