After the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, David French, the conservative writer and Iraq War veteran, published an article at National Review that harkens back to the Bush administration in several ways—most objectionably in its attempt to use a kind of political correctness to advance the counterterrorism policies that he prefers.
The article, “The World Is Too Comfortable With Terror,” eventually offers substantive arguments for those policy preferences. And they are worth grappling with on the merits: the author is an intelligent commentator opining earnestly on an important subject.
But the article begins by priming the reader as follows:
Make no mistake, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that a certain amount of terrorism is just the price we have to pay to live the way we want to live. Now, to be clear, very few people will come out and say this explicitly, and national-security establishments do their best — within certain, limited parameters — to stop every single terror attack, but more than 15 years after 9/11 it’s clear that there are prices our societies aren’t willing to pay. And neither our nation nor any of our European allies is willing to pay the price to reduce the terror threat to its pre-9/11 scale.
Consequently, an undetermined number of civilians will die, horribly, at concerts, restaurants, nightclubs, or simply while walking on the sidewalk. It almost certainly won’t be you, of course, but it will be somebody.
And they’ll often be kids.
That paragraph is technically correct. There are presumably majorities in both parties who believe that a certain amount of terrorism is the price we have to pay to live the way we want to live—after all, that has been so for as long as the United States has been a country. But it is manipulatively put in a way that conservative readers might find that easier to discern if we repeat the paragraph but substitute a few words:
Make no mistake, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that a certain amount of gun deaths is just the price we have to pay to live the way we want to live. Now, to be clear, very few people will come out and say this explicitly, and national-security establishments do their best — within certain, limited parameters — to stop every single death, but it’s clear that there are prices our societies aren’t willing to pay. Consequently, an undetermined number of people will die, horribly. It may not be you, but it will be somebody.
And they’ll often be kids.
It isn’t that terrorism, or gun deaths, are unimportant; or that status quo policies are obviously correct; or that those who want to do more are necessarily incorrect; or that it is wrong to point to costs of inaction when making one’s case for action. The problem with these arguments is the implication that disagreements about what policies to pursue are rooted in some people caring enough to stop children from dying horribly, and others not so much. In fact, there are deep disagreements about the likely effects of many policies. And while the willingness to adopt some policies even though dead children will result is real, it is also universal; if you favor allowing cars to drive faster than 25 miles per hour, or allowing kids to ride in them, then you are willing to say that a certain amount of deaths are the price we pay to live as we want.
Unless you are willing to mandate tracking chips in everyone’s bodies, so that counterterrorism authorities can know the locations of all people at all times—and forbid the purchase of fertilizer, pressure cookers, bolts, and knives, all common terrorist weapons—then you too are unwilling to take measures that would stop an undetermined number of civilians from dying horribly, and you believe that “a certain amount of terrorism is just the price we have to pay to live the way we want to live.”
To put it so bluntly is politically incorrect. But to hold the contrary position, that we will pay any price to end terrorism, is morally monstrous and incompatible with the Constitution.
No free society could survive the latter posture.
As a conservative with strong moral beliefs and a commitment to following the Constitution, David French himself presumably believes that a certain amount of terrorism is the price we have to pay to live the way we want to live. His actual argument, stripped of the manipulative framing, is that two policies are worth pursuing. French argues for military action against terrorist safe havens abroad and restrictions at home that limit immigration from “jihadist regions.” In his estimation, the Bush administration pursued both national-security strategies to great effect; and abandoning the Bush approach led to increased attacks in the U.S. in Europe.
Bush “not only pressed military offensives in the heart of the Middle East, he fundamentally changed the American approach to immigration and implemented a number of temporary measures that, for example, dramatically decreased refugee admissions and implemented country-specific protective measures that have since been discontinued,” French wrote. “And don’t forget, aside from their reckless immigration policies, our European allies weren’t just beneficiaries of the Bush doctrine but also participants in Bush’s military offensives. Our NATO allies have been on the ground in Afghanistan since the war launched in earnest. Britain was a principal partner in Iraq.”
His larger theory is that “there are two laws of terrorism that work together to guarantee that attacks will occur, and they’ll occur with increasing frequency. First, when terrorists are granted safe havens to plan, train, equip, and inspire terror attacks, then they will strike, and they’ll keep striking not just until the safe havens are destroyed but also until the cells and affiliates they’ve established outside their havens are rooted out. Second, when you import immigrants at any real scale from jihadist regions, then you will import the cultural, religious, and political views that incubate jihad.”
Today, “there is little appetite across the entire American political spectrum for an increased ground-combat presence in the Middle East,” he observes. “So the slow-motion war against ISIS continues, and terrorist safe havens remain. In the U.S., even Trump’s short-term and modest so-called travel ban has been blocked in court and lacks public support.”
It seems to me that the rhetorical frame of Westerners unwilling to do what it takes to stop terrorism has blinded French to the most common reasons for rejecting his positions.
For many Americans, myself included, the Iraq War was not a counterterrorism success. It was a conflict that killed many more Americans than died on September 11, 2001; and the instability that it spawned was a major root cause of the rise of ISIS. The bipartisan consensus against more ground invasions in the Middle East is not rooted in an unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices to reduce terrorism; it reflects a belief that the Iraq War seems to have increased rather than reduced global terrorism.
In my estimation, President Bush’s well-intentioned reaction to 9/11 did more to harm America than the evil attacks themselves, the very effect the terrorists hoped to have.
Indisputably, it killed more innocents.
What’s more, the bipartisan consensus remains in favor of denying safe havens to terrorists, as evidenced by the explosion of drone strikes during the Obama administration. That consensus is tempered by fears that a ground invasion of Syria would risk a major powers conflict with Russia (a nation with enough nuclear weapons to end life on earth), and that even a short term victory against ISIS could prove phyrric, requiring a choice between an open-ended occupation of Syria that would cost thousands of American lives, or leaving and seeing the territory revert to terrorist safe havens.
Is it even the case that the occupation of Afghanistan made Americans safer? If so, I haven’t seen the evidence. I suspect that the war there killed more Americans than it saved.
One also wonders how many people were radicalized into terrorism as a result of U.S. abuses in Iraq, like the ones at the Abu Ghraib prison, or by innocents killed by drones.
In any event, my sincere belief is that another invasion like the one in Iraq would make the American homeland marginally more vulnerable to terrorism, not marginally safer, even as it cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and killed hundreds or thousands of U.S. troops. I would oppose such a course not because I am averse to paying the costs but because I believe that the costs far outweigh the benefits.
The merits of a more restrictive immigration policy are harder to evaluate. I’ve thought and read comparatively little about the relationship between immigration policy and terrorism. And French’s claims forecast the future as much as they apply established knowledge. But say for the sake of argument that French is correct when he argues that “when you import immigrants at any real scale from jihadist regions, then you will import the cultural, religious, and political views that incubate jihad.”
Does that mean admitting Syrian refugees to the United States will save 50,000 human lives now at a cost of 3 people dying in a terrorist attack a decade in the future? Is the tradeoff more like 2,150,000 lives significantly improved, including 2 million Americans helped by a cardiology procedure discovered by a Syrian immigrant and 150,000 Syrians directly helped, while 23 people die in a terrorist attack perpetrated by one grandson of the initial immigrants? Or is it more like a few hundred people helped at the cost of a 9/11 style attack perpetrated on three occasions?
The argument that immigration from “jihadist regions” imports jihad, therefore it should be eliminated, is sufficiently vague that it treats all those scenarios as equal in their implications for the immigration policy that the United States ought to adopt.
And I reject that treatment.
If an immigration policy really does make the United States orders of magnitude more vulnerable to terrorism while doing very little good, then of course it’s prudent to oppose it. On the other hand, if an immigration policy helps to spare hundreds of thousands of foreign innocents from misery or death, has ancillary benefits for many Americans, and also increases the risk that there is a terrorist attack that kills 3 people in a future decade, then yes, I am willing to accept that tradeoff.
Where are we on that spectrum?
I suspect that the people who reject Trump’s travel ban are typically averse to terrorism and eager to prevent future attacks, but also understand themselves to be opposing a policy that was conceived in bigotry more than a rational assessment of risk, and that imposes very heavy costs while giving us relatively meager gains in safety, if any. And while I am happy to entertain evidence that we opponents of the Trump travel ban are mistaken about the costs and benefits that we are anticipating, I reject the notion that we ought to be willing to pay any price to eliminate any risk of future terrorist attacks by any immigrants or their descendants––the absolutist standard necessary to exempt us from the stigma French wields.
As Jim Manzi once put it, while arguing against that absolutist standard as an argument for torture:
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 closing, let’s imagine that David French is correct that terrorism can be reduced to pre-9/11 levels, but that he is incorrect about the policies necessary to effect that reduction. For the sake of argument, say that the course that would eliminate most terrorism is not more foreign wars and less immigration, but a basic minimum income funded by massive tax increases on the rich and middle class; heavy-handed restrictions on Internet freedom that effectively end online recruiting; an education program indoctrinating young people, including second generation immigrants, into atheism; strict gun control; and realigning our foreign policy to benefit Palestine.
That is not my ideological agenda. And I suspect that even if we knew it would reduce terrorism to pre-9/11 levels, French would not criticize me for being unwilling to pay the price to reduce the terror threat if I was unwilling to adopt it wholesale.
“The Western world knows the price it has to pay to decisively reduce the terror threat,” he concludes, inaccurately, for that is an unknown. “It’s no longer willing to pay that price. It’s no longer willing even to let their militaries truly do the jobs they volunteered to do. So there will be more Manchesters, more Parises, more Nices, and more Orlandos. But that’s what happens when we’re not willing to do what it takes.”
To be moved by an argument of the sort that he offers is to be manipulated into eliding questions of efficacy and values by the specter of dead children. Don’t be led astray.