Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

09.28.12

The Bipartisan Security Ratchet

The government keeps claiming new powers for itself in the name of keeping us safe.

Apropos of my last post, Ken at Popehat writes:  

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right to detain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review. It asserts the right to be free of lawsuits or other judicial proceedings that might reveal its secrets in the War on Terror. It asserts that the people it kills in drone strikes are either probably enemy combatants in the War on Terror or acceptable collateral damage. It asserts that increasing surveillance of Americans, increasing interception of Americans' communications, and increasingly intrusive security measures are all required by the War on Terror.

But the War on Terror, unlike other wars, will last as long as the government says it will. And, as the MEK episode illustrates, the scope of the War on Terror — the very identity of the Terror we fight — is a subjective matter in the discretion of the government. The compelling need the government cites to do whatever it wants is itself defined by the government.

We're letting the government do that. We're putting up with it. We're even cheering it, because that's more comfortable than opposing it or thinking about how far it has gone.

I believe that America is at risk from terrorists, in the sense that the lives and property of Americans are in grave peril all over the world, including here at home. But America is more than people — America is the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and a constitutional government accountable to its people and limited in its ability to abuse them. Terrorists can't destroy those things. But terrorists can terrify us into destroying them ourselves.  

Neither Ken nor I are bleeding-heart pacifists.  But at this point, this stuff is getting done almost on autopilot.  The government turns the ratchet--adds some inane new procedure to airline checkpoints, or asserts that it can assassinate American citizens it believes to be terrorists.  A few civil libertarians protest, but most people go along, because don't we all want to be safe from terrorism?  Why, yes, we do . . . so we give the government more power to terrorize.