A Republic Demands Courage From Its Citizens

The odds that an American will die in a terrorist attack are minuscule. So why are so many willing to sacrifice civil liberties and foreign innocents to keep safe?


One of the most striking challenges I've read during the War on Terrorism came from Jim Manzi, author of the excellent Uncontrolled, in a 2009 post at National Review explaining why he opposes waterboarding. There's a lot to his argument, but he concluded by talking about the actual threat we face and the demands that life in a free, moral society imposes on its members. His words are relevant to the debate about targeted killing, as I'll explain momentarily.

Consider the situation we face as a nation, Manzi wrote:

We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage -- not foolhardy and unsustainable "principle at all costs," but reasoned courage -- from its citizens .... To demand that the government "keep us safe" by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

I feel similarly about the parts of the drone war being conducted outside of the war zone in Afghanistan. Obama's targeted killings, as currently practiced, may well inspire more terrorist attacks than they prevent. They may well weaken the rule of law in a way that hurts Americans more than it helps us.

But say I'm wrong about that. Set aside those objections.

Even so, are we really willing to say that extending due process to the few Americans accused of being terrorists is too dangerous? Is taking care to be sure that we don't kill innocent civilians in an impoverished country really too heavy a burden for us to bear, given that any drone strike America forgoes is very unlikely to result in a terrorist attack here, increasing the risk infinitesimally at most? Are we really too afraid to put the Department of Defense in charge of drone strikes rather than the CIA, with its less onerous protocol for killing? Is it really an unacceptable threat to our safety to impose transparent protocol for targeted killings on Obama?

There could always be a massive terrorist attack tomorrow -- that's the nature of living in a free society. The perpetrator could be a Tim McVeigh or an Osama bin Laden or something else still.

But remember that the 0.001 percent chance of dying in a terrorist attack that Manzi cited is based on a scenario where a 9/11-style attack happens every year. And that between September 12, 2001 and 2008, when the drone war began in its current form, our homeland didn't suffer any mass casualty attacks. Yet Americans insist on a drone program exactly as it exists today, with no additional safeguards, in the name of safety. What sort of risk calculation are they employing? *

It isn't a rational one. It is driven by ginned-up fear more than logic, and its adherents are failing to exhibit the courage that living in a free, moral country demands. They aren't being asked to give up killing Al Qaeda members, just to take more care to ensure that everyone they kill really belongs to the organization. Doing so might reduce blowback over time. At worst, it would save innocents at the cost of letting a tiny number of bad guys get away. But we won't do it, in part because we're irrationally afraid, and in part because we place far too low a value on the lives of innocent non-Americans in Muslim countries.

Look at it this way.

There were almost 10,000 drunk-driving fatalities in 2011 alone. That's the equivalent of three 9/11s in people killed, plus many more seriously injured, every year. Is a majority of Americans ready to lower the blood alcohol limit to 0.01 and to mandate breathalyzers on all ignition switches? Nope. That would be an onerous government intrusion on liberty. I'm fine with that. But it vexes me when the same citizenry faces the significantly lower risk that terrorists pose, spends far more on prevention, and still insists that targeted killings in Yemen and Somalia can't be constrained, because taking more care to save innocents would threaten us.

Many Americans willingly take bigger risks to scuba dive, ride a motorcycle, or eat junk food than they are willing to take to spare the lives of far away kids. As my colleague Ta-Nehisi CoatesĀ put it, writing on a related subject, "Our problem is we think we're better than we actually are. We've gotten so good at telling ourselves this."

Let's actually be better.

*The same one that got us into Iraq?