, October 16, 2001
Title: About Weapons of Mass Destruction (Editorial)
Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Peter E. Hendrickson
Citing, among other similarly unpersuasive, nuance-free arguments the dangers of the possible deployment within our borders of weapons of mass destruction by our enemies, the U.S. government seeks to claim for itself broadened and deepened sovereignty from and over the people. Powers sought include substantially enhanced wiretapping license, the opening of bank accounts and tax records to law enforcement scrutiny, the use of secret evidence against suspects, and more. In light of this, it is wise to reflect on the fact that the most devastating weapon of mass destruction deployed against any people has always been its own government, instances of which slaughtered more than 170,000,000 combined in the last century alone. Thus, the very rhetoric called upon to justify new delegations of power must serve as a caution against both haste and a casual reliance on either the good intentions or expertise of those who seek them.
The claim that these new authorities will forestall future attacks is specious and demagogic. It is axiomatic that any future assault will accommodate itself in design and target to whatever measures of security are currently extant, just as did the last. While it is possible to cite numerous problems with the adherence to legal particulars on the part of the suicide bombers responsible for last monthís atrocities, such as being in the country on expired visas and the like, all of them were clearly within the tolerance range of the then current level of enforcement.
If we undertake in the future to scrupulously enforce compliance with those and similar requirements, we can rest assured that future suicide bombers will scrupulously adhere to them, and then proceed within that context. Those requirements would not have spared the past victims and will not protect future victims, and even should the tightening of security at airports make targeting aircraft less viable, plenty of other targets abound.
These efforts will not suffice to make us proof against attack, and this should be (and should be presumed to be) obvious to those whom we pay to be experts on such matters and the policies that concern such matters. Nonetheless, they cynically urge our acceptance of the infringements designed to achieve these false securities.
It is significant that most of the new police powers sought had been being cited as dire necessities for months or years before the recent attack, which is simply being seized upon as a propitious totem to shake in the public face to the accompaniment of throbbing drums and chants of "Necessity, safety, necessity, safetyÖ".
The best that can be said for such efforts is that they allow those highly paid "experts" to seem proactive and thus prop up their incumbencies, but the satisfaction of that interest is a poor justification for delivering more power into the hands of the state. Under the circumstances, suspicion as to the sincerity or true character of their motives is not at all out of line.
(Senator Charles Schumer recently advocated imposing the security rituals now common to airline travel upon rail passengers. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that if a train becomes the object of terrorist interest, such interest could be satisfied most effectively without ever boarding the train, unless it has escaped my notice that trains no longer use tracks. Or maybe Schumerís just an idiot. Or perhaps he just knows someone whoíll pay a lot of money for the Amtrak customer list that his proposal would create if enacted, and heís figured a way to get a cut).
There are, however, measures that can be taken which DO hold the promise of substantially reducing American vulnerability to the dangers posed by terrorism, and which, in a wonderfully ironic synchronicity, are uniquely available to Americans as a consequence of that same monumental productivity responsible for the poisonous envy and hatred animating our enemies.
While crews still labor to comb and clear the rubble of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and mourning continues among the families of the victims, Americans bravely talk of rebuilding and carrying on heedless of the threats the future holds. Get back to business as usual, we are urged, and raise up another grand symbol of American greatness which, we might be persuaded to believe, can successfully be spared from becoming another mass grave by the steps toward a police state about to be enacted by the aforementioned models of wisdom and probity representing us in government. But consider this: the true strength and greatness of America lies in our flexibility and our imagination; our ability and willingness to adapt to and maximize the benefit of new challenges and new opportunities, and right now our challenge and opportunity lies in thinking, and living, outside of the box.
32,000,000 U.S. workers do not report to a ground zero five mornings a week, and the parents of 1,000,000 - 2,000,000 (maybe considerably more) schoolchildren decline to have their kids spend each day in a target. The American entrepreneurial dynamo has generated a high-tech infrastructure in which telecommuting and homeschooling are viable options for more people every day, including vast numbers who arenít even aware of the possibility. Rather than urging Americans to support new police powers in order to safely crowd into big buildings each day, the administration and congress should be using the bully pulpit to sing the praises of working at home, of teleconferencing, and of homeschooling. Not only would we become immensely harder targets for attacks by our enemies, we also would reap enormous additional benefits: in quality of life in general, in the education of our children, in our environmental impact, and in our cost of living.
Right now, the discovery that anthrax-laden envelopes have been delivered to multiple targets around the country has public officials issuing instructions on how best to identify and deal with high-risk hard-copy mail. Why not simply stop using it for the business and junk correspondence which is the variety susceptible to tampering? (Personal letters are generally not a risk as the handwriting and return addresses are familiar guarantors of its provenance and trustworthiness to the recipient). Email is absolutely proof against infecting anyone with anything, and the danger to computers associated with it are due in large part to poor practices by both senders and receivers, which would be easily minimized by a few public service announcements and standardized practices on the part of service providers.
Another substantial benefit of this cultural judo would be the improvement in our civic lives. Not only would citizens have more time with their families, but they would have more time available in which to stay abreast of public policy issues and to thoughtfully express themselves both amongst their fellows and at the ballot box. American greatness was conceived and nurtured by a rural, decentralized society, and while we will never again quite duplicate that earlier structure, the massive densely-packed population centers, with their chronic social pathologies and corrupt machine politics, can and should be greatly diminished.
In addition to encouraging Americans to embrace the opportunities and benefits of decentralizing their work and school lives, our leaders should be directing public attention and support to the refinement and deployment of private energy production. The technology by which every home could provide for its own electricity, through solar concentrating generators and fuel cell systems, not to mention straight natural gas fired generators and other systems, has long been available. Vigorously encouraging the adoption of this technology, would minimize or eliminate the potential for massive disruptions through terrorist targeting of centralized power systems.
Similarly, Congress should reject out of hand the scheme of various state governments to form a compact, or cartel, in order to impose sales taxes on internet commerce, a formula for discouraging this immensely safer method of shopping. Instead, congress should make permanent its ban on internet taxation on the national level, and resolve to withhold its necessary cooperation-- such compacts are unconstitutional without congressional approval-- from the conspiring state governments.
Of course, many special interests can be counted on to howl with protest at the implementation of each of these notions, such as the public education industry, the road repair industry, the political bosses, the postal unions, and assorted busybodies who will find it much more difficult to intimidate and harass employers and employees when workforces are spread over hundreds of square miles and children are safe under the watchful eyes of their parents. And certainly, not every workplace can be dispersed. But a huge percentage can, and of the type that cannot, such as manufacturing facilities, microplants are already outcompeting the behemoths of the past, and can continue to make up a larger and larger share of their respective industries, thus minimizing unavoidable concentrations of personnel and key industrial capacity.
While much may have changed on September 11th, one thing that did not is the proper relationship between Americans and their government, and that is not the area in which adjustments to any new reality should be made. Those currently under consideration will not accomplish their stated goals, and might do much mischief. As William Pitt said, "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves". That we must adjust is undeniable; that we should do so thoughtfully, creatively, and with enduring faith in the transcendent ability of our system of free enterprise and individual sovereignty to overcome adversity is just as certain. Our system is not strong for being able to absorb encroachments on liberty without harm-- it cannot, for such encroachments in and of themselves eat away at its sinews.
Rather it is strong because by the very disdain for encroachment which is its foundation it taps and focuses the inexhaustible resources of the human mind and spirit against which no dark and cramped envy and hatred can prevail.
So letís flex these big muscles of ours. Especially the ones in our heads.