Goldberg and I already agree that those efforts shouldn't transgress civil liberties. And besides what we emphasize, I'm not certain about where our disagreements might be. But I'm sure they exist, and perhaps fleshing out my own views will advance our exchange. I'd be curious to hear which of the following points Goldberg -- as well as readers -- would contest:
1) Even the possibility of terrorist attacks bigger than any we've seen -- one twice as big as 9/11, say -- must still be weighed rationally, in a world of limited resources, against other stuff that kills us. We're obviously dealing with unknowns, but say, hypothetically, that investing $500 billion over 10 years would prevent a terrorist attack that killed 6,000 -- but investing the same amount in medical research would result in advances that reduced the incidence of cancer by half. Well, cancer kills 550,000 Americans per year, every year. That ought to be a no-brainer. Would there still be many Americans who'd nevertheless choose to stop the terrorist attack?
I suspect so -- at the very least, in a world of uncertainty, we don't even consider alternative uses for counterterrorism dollars when we commit them to "keeping us safe." It's a virtually blank check. Goldberg says:
There are other reasons that deaths from drowning or diabetes or
lightning strikes aren't comparable to deaths caused by terrorism.
Sustained terror campaigns against civilian targets do, whether
Friedersdorf or I like it or not, undermine trust and openness across a
society. They demand the adoption of security procedures that may be
effective but are still onerous and debilitating.
True. Americans could react to a terrorist attack that killed 6,000 people in a way that damaged us even more than cancer. That's why it's vital to persuade Americans to change their mindset now, so that we can minimize the irrational things we're forced to do because terrorism is scary. We should train ourselves to more accurately assess risk so that we can spend prudently.
2) Actual counterterrorism policy, as implemented by the U.S. government and critiqued by people like me, is not focused on preventing unconventional attacks. What War on Terror critics like me and fans of what Goldberg calls "muscular" counterterrorism efforts ought to agree on is the prudence of shifting whatever resources we allocate to counterterrorism away from security theater, hopeless efforts to anticipate every analogue to the Boston marathon bombing, Guantanamo Bay, our insane approach to air travel, and most counterterrorism grants to localities -- and toward addressing the sorts of attacks that really would be catastrophic.
3) What sorts of measures would a "War on Terror" skeptic like me agree to? Well, I am definitely okay with capturing or killing top leaders in al-Qaeda, like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Beyond that, if the goal is to prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks, money spent on those pricey nudie scanners, as well as Obama's ill-conceived surge of troops into Afghanistan, would seem to be better spent on offensive measures such as infiltrating al-Qaeda with actual human agents and shutting down any attempts to sell biological agents on the black market, and various defensive measures like screening goods at our ports for radiation; investing in efforts to secure nuclear material and viruses at research facilities; and putting in place measures that would minimize casualties if a biological agent were ever loosed. There are all sorts of counterterrorism measures I favor, especially ones that address the biggest risks.