TCS Daily

Slippery Sloping

By Jonah Goldberg - November 15, 2002 12:00 AM

Actually, I was not claiming to describe the totality of Nick's humanity as deeply selfish and myopic, merely the fraction that seems to argue that the comparatively small sacrifice of some liberty at home is not worth the alleviation of total oppression abroad (a point he seems to have no significant opinion about). My apologies if it seemed otherwise. Now that the hugging and kissy-face is over...

Ah, Japanese internment. Well, let me say that I'm agin' it. I think it was wrong and should not have happened. And, I think it's fair to say, most Americans agree, including the man Nick's magazine seems to think is the greatest threat to our freedoms, the Attorney General of the United States.

I bring this up, you see, because we haven't rounded up - and have no plans to round up - Muslims during this war on terror, even though it's obvious that Muslims in America are a greater threat to us now than the Japanese were then and the potential threat to the home front is far greater today, too. After all, as Nick rightly notes, there was little to no evidence that Japanese Americans were a danger. But there is ample evidence of Muslim cells, fifth columnists, sympathizers and sleepers in our midst. And before the boys at CAIR get all goofy on me, let me be clear: I'm not in favor of interning Muslims either.

One reason I'm not in favor of interning Muslims is that it would be wrong and unfair to countless American citizens and visitors who've done nothing wrong. Another reason I'm not in favor of it is that it is unnecessary. And that's largely thanks to those snooping, spying, Big Brotherish programs Nick and other libertarians so despise. Much in the same way that new technology makes it possible to reduce "collateral damage" in war abroad (e.g. Dresden vs. Kabul), new technology makes it possible to reduce infringements upon personal liberty at home (In fact, the only piece I ever wrote for Nick's magazine dealt with the way technology changes political reality.)

Despite what the British tabloids and domestic paranoids claim, the Justice Department hasn't been using a sledgehammer against the civil liberties of Americans in general or Muslim Americans in particular but a scalpel. This is important - I think - to bring up because it helps demonstrate that the slippery slope doesn't exist. If the slippery slope were real, if there were an inexorable gravitational pull that made every sacrifice of liberty irreversible, then we'd see the WW II internment of the Japanese (and other citizens, by the way) as a useful precedent to do the same to Muslims rather than a cautionary tale no one wants to repeat.

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Indeed, Nick frets that restrictions on the CIA and FBI that were put in place to curb past abuses have been relaxed. That's true. It's also true that if the slippery slope existed, such curbs would never have been imposed in the first place.

I don't mean to harp on this slippery slope stuff, but there's something distinctly literary about the way Nick talks about all of the infringements on our freedoms so far. (It reminds me of "The Simpsons" when Homer is campaigning to become sanitation commissioner and he declares at a rally: "People! Animals are crapping in our houses, and we're picking it up! Did we lose a war? That's not America. That's not even Mexico!"). Nick speaks of the "augmented" powers of the government in the wake of 9/11. Fair enough. But he conjures the specter of wholesale abuse when the abuse - if any - is retail. The number of Americans held in military custody? I'm pretty sure it's two - Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi (if there's a third, I think my point will be undamaged).

I'm not sure what Nick is talking about when he suggests that the government has secured the power to search emails and faxes without a court order. If he's referring to the fact the FBI can now search the web like everybody else, I will be able to restrain the urge to shudder. If he's suggesting that the FBI is capable of reading my e-mail without a search warrant, he's simply wrong. If he's talking about technologies in development, fine. But that's hardly the sort of argument I'd expect from a libertarian at TechCentralStation of all places. And the fact that Nick seems to exaggerate the threat of existing programs makes me less inclined to take his highly literary cautions about future ones to heart.

A case in point: this "eavesdropping" thing. The actual number of people who've had their conversations "eavesdropped" on is zero. To "eavesdrop" means to listen in on someone's conversation in secret. That's not happening because it remains illegal. The government is monitoring the attorney-client conversations of a couple dozen people. But the government must notify both the lawyer and the prisoner that they are being monitored and nothing that is recorded is admissible in court. Not only does that sound like unprecedented - or at least very impressive - restraint on the part of the US government, it sounds like Nick seems to believe - in a literary sense - that the curtailing of freedom for one is the curtailing of freedom for all, another tired cliché.

Or maybe he's just trying to scare people. Yes, the government is discussing - in the open, in the media, in Congress, not in secret - ID cards, "informant" systems, and revision of the posse comitatus doctrine. Are all of these things good ideas? I don't know. The answers, it seems to me, are in the details. But I hardly think Jim Glassman and Alan Dershowitz - who favor ID cards for example - can be counted as allies of Big Brother or - dare I say it - the Panopticon.

And, again, despite Nick's extensive discussions of such things as the draft, mass-internment, wage and price controls, etc., none of these things is under discussion today because nobody seriously thinks they are necessary. The peacetime draft probably wasn't the horror Nick paints it, but even if it was, it's gone and is unlikely to ever return (which might be a shame) because it's militarily unnecessary. That's because the 1940s were a unique moment in human history, economically, technologically and politically. Specific circumstances elicited specific decisions, some of which may have been mistakes. But they weren't mistakes generated out of the metaphysical status of war. Even Nick concedes that the decisions made during WWII weren't necessary - which is to say they were not foreordained by the immutable laws of war.

Similarly, we may make mistakes today, too, and I'm sure in hindsight we will have discovered that we've already made quite a few. I don't want to be painted into the position of saying that whatever the government does in the name of liberty is necessary to defend liberty any more than I want to say - as so many libertarians seem to - that everything the government does in the name of liberty is really a triumph of tyranny. Nick argues that the government is today taking unnecessary measures - i.e. "something for nothing" - maybe he's right. But Nick needs to prove which measures are unnecessary or mistaken. Even Hayekians believe in trial and error. Only gods and angels get everything right the first time out of the box. It is no iron law that we make mistakes in the name of security during wartime and there is no iron law which says we can't correct the ones we do make.

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