Credit to the pioneers (updated twice)

All journalism involves simplification and compression. Otherwise a story could never end and would always be longer than the event it describes, to take all perspectives into account. Even our chronicles in the Atlantic involve serious last-minute cutting -- believe it or not!

Thus Fareed Zakaria's latest column in Newsweek, which as usual I agree with, has to leave out certain details to get to the main point. The main point: that there is such a thing as exaggerated fear of terrorism, and that U.S. politics shows ample and self-destructive illustrations of it.

Certain details necessarily left out of this column but that should remain on the record: the pioneering role of scholars like John Mueller (of Ohio State), Benjamin H. Friedman (of MIT -- not the economist Benjamin M. Friedman of Harvard), Ian Lustick (of Penn), Veronique de Rugy (now of George Mason U's Mercatus Center), and others in arguing from the start that the United States needed to be careful about doing too much, too cumbersomely, in its attempt to "protect" itself against every risk. My chronicle of their activities and arguments was in a 2006 Atlantic cover story, "Declaring Victory."

This was not so safe or comfortable an argument to make back, say, in 2004 when Benjamin Friedman began doing so. Such efforts are worth remembering.

Update: The security expert Bruce Schneier also deserves a place on the list of "sane when everyone else was going berserk" honorees. For instance, the issue of his "Crypto-Gram" newsletter that came out immediately after the 9/11 attacks said this:

Airline security measures are primarily designed to give the appearance of good security rather than the actuality. This makes sense, once you realize that the airlines' goal isn't so much to make the planes hard to hijack, as to make the passengers willing to fly. Of course airlines would prefer it if all their flights were perfectly safe, but actual hijackings and bombings are rare events and they know it.

This is not to say that all airport security is useless, and that we'd be better off doing nothing. All security measures have benefits, and all have costs: money, inconvenience, etc. I would like to see some rational analysis of the costs and benefits, so we can get the most security for the resources we have.

Some of Schneier's more recent thoughts here. Thanks to Jay Ackroyd for this reminder.

Update #2: Fareed Zakaria himself was also writing some "let's get a grip here" articles fairly early on, for instance this in 2004. (This previous post concerns a similar earlier battle.) And, this front page story in Monday's New York Times illustrates how far in the brainless auto-pilot direction Homeland "Security" policy has gone. It's much as foreseen in pop fiction.