Liberty and False Comparisons

It's not hypocritical or racist to support an aggressive pursuit of terrorists while getting outraged over abuses of Americans' liberties.

I’ve been pretty consistent over the years in siding with liberty over authority in the fight against terrorism.  Whether the president has been a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, the federalization of airport security screenings, torture of accused terrorists, unlimited detention of prisoners, declaration of citizens as illegal enemy combatants and denying them habeus corpus rights, and even the use of language that suggested that people who disagree with my views on various issues are unpatriotic.

But one argument that I’m seeing a lot over the last couple of days strikes me as bizarre.

Adam Serwer:

The Transportation Security Agency’s new airport passenger-screening procedures, which force airline passengers to submit to a full-body scan or an invasive frisk, is turning Dick Cheney’s biggest fans into latter-day Ben Franklins.

The conservative, torture-friendlyWashington Times, declared that “a balance must be struck between reasonable security measures and the maintenance of a free society.” Abu Ghraib was a fraternity prank, but getting frisked at the airport is a sign of, to quote the Times, “Big Sister’s police state.”

Scott Lemieux:

So, of course, to wingers the necessity to violate people’s rights to confront allegedly existential threats becomes much less compelling when it’s their rights being violated. Hence, the inevitable calls from conservatives that the new TSA policies not be applied in a manner consistent with the equal protection of the laws.

Now, again, I opposed the maltreatments at Abu Ghraib, which were abuses of power carried out by criminals for their own amusement to the detriment of America’s goals in Iraq and the region.

But it’s certainly possible to construct an ethical, reasonable argument wherein those entrusted with defending our nation would be justified in using extraordinary measures against foreign nationals, particularly those captured in combat against American citizens, who are strongly suspected of being terrorists.   And it’s possible to hold that position and yet think it’s outrageous to subject grandma and 6-year-olds to invasions of their privacy as part of an absurd demonstration of security theater.

I think waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed was not only legally and morally questionable but unnecessary and likely counterproductive.  But I can understand why President Bush and Vice President Cheney might think otherwise.   Regardless, he’s, to a virtual certainty, a terrorist and mass murderer.   Conversely, those people being subjected to the indignities of the TSA are, to an even higher degree of certainty, American citizens under zero suspicion of a crime.

Similarly, one needn’t be a racist or a reactionary to think that different levels of scrutiny ought be applied to Muslim males between the ages of 25 and 35 than to Hispanic toddlers or Jewish grandmothers when screening for potential terrorists.   “Profiling” based on race, gender, or ethnicity alone, naturally, would be not only unlawful but stupid.   But it makes sense to limit one’s attention to those who are plausibly suspects.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think you’re right on your larger point.
    But it’s still bitterly amusing to see right-wingers who haven’t given a damn about civil liberties so long as the offenses are against “someone else” suddenly up in arms because it’s them.
    It’s the same thing as conservatives who despise gays until they discover their daughter is gay and suddenly the scales fall from their eyes.
    This is a consistent feature of conservative minds:  they lack imagination.  This blind spot makes it all but impossible for them to empathize or to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.  To clarify, I’m not calling conservatives stupid, they aren’t, but they have lost the capacity for imagination, for divergent thinking.  In fact it may be their core defining characteristic.




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  2. John Burgess says:

    Hey, I consider myself conservative but also don’t think these TSA regs violate any of my rights, including my right to dignity. I only object because they cause a loss of efficiency in the already deficient process of getting on an airplane.




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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think we need to be a little more specific about what constitutes “extraordinary measures”.  I have no problem whatever with subjecting foreign nationals to additional security screening at airports, for example.  I think that torture is always, unconditionally wrong.  I haven’t made up my mind on all forms of coercive interrogation.  They may well be morally wrong, too.
     
    The basic difference between our method of security screening which is held up to virtually universal scorn and the Israeli approach which gets high marks, at least from those in the Right Blogosphere, is that our method tries to keep weapons off planes and the Israeli method tries to keep terrorists off planes.   I’m skeptical that the Israeli approach is scaleable to work in a country of our size (I’d guess that O’Hare has more traffic than Israel does).  We certainly can’t do it without deciding who’s likely to be a terrorist, whether it’s by demographic characteristics or behavior.




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  4. Alex Knapp says:

    <blockquote>Similarly, one needn’t be a racist or a reactionary to think that different levels of scrutiny ought be applied to Muslim males between the ages of 25 and 35</blockquote>
     
    Only a tiny percentage of terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by Muslim males.  The vast majority have been by white, Christian males.  This is true even if you control for the variance in population sizes.
     
    While one can logically exempt, for example, toddlers from too much scrutiny, consider that the last two major acts of politically motivated terrorism in this country were committed by elderly white males.
     
    The vast majority of terrorists in the United States are not Muslim, which is why profiling of this nature doesn’t make sense in domestic security screening.
     




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  5. James Joyner says:

    Only a tiny percentage of terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by Muslim males.  The vast majority have been by white, Christian males.  This is true even if you control for the variance in population sizes.

    Islamists are the ones who’ve targeted passenger airliners and trains and the ones who seem to be somewhat organized.  The vast bulk of “terrorist attacks” otherwise have been lone wackos or, if one goes back far enough, white supremacists committing acts of terrorism against individual citizens.




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  6. Wayne says:

    The problems with liberals are that they can only deal with absolutes. Their blind spot prevents them from seeing the difference between a highly like\known criminal and highly like\known innocents. Just because someone doesn’t have a problem with patting down members of a prison population doesn’t mean that someone must not have a problem with routine pat downs of the civilian general population.
     
    In a liberal mind the general prison general population is the same as the civilian general population. Their mind just can’t comprehend that there is a difference.




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  7. mantis says:

    The problems with liberals are that they can only deal with absolutes.
    A comedian, eh?




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  8. Wayne says:

    I try. Why let Michael have all the fun.




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  9. tom p says:

    How’s your yoga James? Because you are a pretzel after that rant.




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  10. tom p says:

    Liberty and False Comparisons

    Talk about setting yourself up, James..

    I’ve been pretty consistent over the years in siding with liberty over authority in the fight against terrorism.  Whether the president has been a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, the federalization of airport security screenings, torture of accused terrorists, unlimited detention of prisoners, declaration of citizens as illegal enemy combatants and denying them habeus corpus rights, and even the use of language that suggested that people who disagree with my views on various issues are unpatriotic.

    OK, good for you James (and i mean that) but you still vote for the assholes who gave us the “War on Terror”.
    So you know what? NOT so good for you. In other words, words are cheap, but by your own admission, you voted for these assholes anyway, and actions speak louder than words. 

    Now, again, I opposed the maltreatments at Abu Ghraib, which were abuses of power carried out by criminals for their own amusement to the detriment of America’s goals in Iraq and the region.

    So James, can I put you down as one who has called for a war crimes tribunal?

    But it’s certainly possible to construct an ethical, reasonable argument wherein those entrusted with defending our nation would be justified in using extraordinary measures against foreign nationals, particularly those captured in combat against American citizens, who are strongly suspected of being terrorists. 

    But only if they ignored our constitution… Please James, make the constitution comply with your position.

    And it’s possible to hold that position and yet think it’s outrageous to subject grandma and 6-year-olds to invasions of their privacy as part of an absurd demonstration of security theater.

    I can not wait …

    I think waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed was not only legally and morally questionable but unnecessary and likely counterproductive.  But I can understand why President Bush and Vice President Cheney might think otherwise. 

    James, HOW IN GOD’S NAME CAN YOU SAY ONE AND THEN SAY THE OTHER??????????????????

    “Conversely, those people being subjected to the indignities of the TSA are, to an even higher degree of certainty, American citizens under zero suspicion of a crime.”

    According to who? What crime? James, the war on drugs has been going on for a long time… and we are ALL under suspicion of a crime….

    Similarly, one needn’t be a racist or a reactionary to think that different levels of scrutiny ought be applied to Muslim males between the ages of 25 and 35 than to Hispanic toddlers or Jewish grandmothers when screening for potential terrorists.  

    And yet, under your criterion, Richard Ried would not have been screened.




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  11. anjin-san says:

    > In a liberal mind the general prison general population is the same as the civilian general population. Their mind just can’t comprehend that there is a difference.
     
    Wayne, you really should not try to fish in this pond. You trying to be clever is like showing up at a knife fight armed with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.




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  12. michael reynolds says:

    Actually, Wayne, the usual conservative critique of liberals is exactly the opposite of yours.  Generally we’re denigrated as being incapable of ever accepting an absolute.
     
    And there’s some truth to that.  It often happens that liberals nuance themselves into amorality and passivity.




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  13. ponce says:

    “Islamists are the ones who’ve targeted passenger airliners”
     
    The U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger airliner.




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  14. ponce says:

    And so did the Soviets…




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  15. Wayne says:

    Re “It often happens that liberals nuance themselves into amorality and passivity”
     Only when it suites their agenda. Otherwise they make statements like the ones you stated above. It is a bit like the so call “liberal tolerance”. They want tolerance when it comes to their group, their group lifestyle and their group ideas but not so much for the opposing side.




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  16. This is hilarious.
    Michael Reynolds continues his incessant projection issues and false caricatures which make it so easy for him to side with the angels.  How incredibly nuanced.
    Tom P, you know, you vote for the assholes that brought us the War on Terror as well, or are you ignoring the m”me too” votes that Democrats insisted be taken so they could show they were tough on terror too?
    Alex chooses his date sets carefully and wants to run wild with two data points in favor of political correctness, if I understand his argument correctly.
    Wayne, I’m a liberal. I think you mean progressives.  John F. Kennedy was a liberal.  Ted Kennedy was a progressive, if that helps distinguish between the two.




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  17. tom p says:

    But it makes sense to limit one’s attention to those who are plausibly suspects.

    And so you say, those who do not fit our preconceived notions are free to fly.

    Similarly, one needn’t be a racist or a reactionary to think that different levels of scrutiny ought be applied to Muslim males between the ages of 25 and 35 than to Hispanic toddlers or Jewish grandmothers when screening for potential terrorists.  

    I repeat, a 97 yr old jewish grandmother who is senile will carry a nuclear bomb if she is told it is her grandfathers watch.
    A 3 yr old toddler will do the same if they think candy is at the end of the rainbow.
    James, wake up… please. (and for the record, I think these new procedures are really stupid… but then, I thought the old ones were just as stupid)
    Long story short: We are F***ed.




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  18. tom p says:

    Tom P, you know, you vote for the assholes that brought us the War on Terror as well, or are you ignoring the m”me too” votes that Democrats insisted be taken so they could show they were tough on terror too?

    Charles, for the record, in ’02 I did not vote for Carnahan… I was too pissed off after that vote. (I did not vote at all) (for which, I caught no end of grief) She lost. In ’04 McCaskill ran and I voted for her… she beat the pants off of Talent. So no… I did not vote for the people who brought us the “war on terror.”
    So FO with your “war on terror” and who is “tougher than who” votes (you are correct, that game was played… but not on me, I knew better)
    Homey don’t play that game. Tell me…. How did you vote?
     
      




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  19. tom p says:

    I was too pissed off after that vote. (I did not vote at all)

    I voted, just not that  race…




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  20. anjin-san says:

    > It is a bit like the so call “liberal tolerance”. They want tolerance when it comes to their group, their group lifestyle and their group ideas but not so much for the opposing side.
     
    Wayne can you help me out? My babble to English translator is broken…




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