Are We Becoming A Nation of Cowards?

“No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

James Madison, April 20, 1795

Osama Bin Laden’s vendetta against the United States grew out of his anger over our stationing American troops in his home country of Saudi Arabia. Imagine for a moment what might be his most cost efficient weapons for hurting the U.S.  What might give him the biggest bang for the buck? Shutting 19 American Embassies and related diplomatic facilities in the Middle East for at least a week on the basis of intercepted communications between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Pakistan and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who heads the al-Qaeda franchise in the Arabian peninsula, would be high on the list. Such reactions to intel, which could well be a deliberate planted by clever Arabs, must have the ghost of Bin Laden laughing hysterically (if it is possible to imagine Bin Laden laughing at all).

I still carry in my travel bag a nail clipper missing the little nail file that a Miami airport guard broke off as a potentially dangerous carry on weapon not too long after 9/11. It has taken 12 years for our government (the Orwellian named Department of Homeland Security) to figure out a way for me to board planes without taking out my computer and taking off my belt and shoes. At least the perpetual alert status of code Orange has been dropped.

These are minor inconveniences compared to the cost and danger of the billions and billions of dollars spent by NSA and others to invade our privacy (for our own good, of course) in order to better search for needles in hay stacks that might detect plots to harm us (such as the Boston marathon bombings—Upps). We are assured that these data will never be searched by a rogue bureaucrat looking for dirt on political enemies. We are reassured because our political leaders never lie to us.  For example, when National Intelligence director James Clapper informed a Senate Intelligence Committee last March that the government was not “wittingly” collecting information on millions of Americans, he later justified the lie by saying that it was the least dishonest statement he was comfortable making.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton, recently noted the unrealistic and dangerous expectations of the American public (at least as our government sees or would like to see them):“Unfortunately the way we in the US have talked about the terror threat as a society AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] doesn’t have to be particularly good or even successful to constitute a serious threat.  As a society we in the US seem to have a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism instead of weighing its risks against other potential threats.  In such an environment any threat from AQAP could be considered serious.” (reported by Foreign Policy Magazine)

I am not one to see conspiracies everywhere, but this latest scare is a nice distraction for recent revelations of potentially dangerous and at a minimum wastefully expensive government over reaches in the name of keeping us safe (Snowden’s NSA and other revelations). This mornings Washington Post has two op-ed pieces on this subject that you should read. The first by Eugene Robinson, “The New Al-Qaeda Menace” /2013/08/05/, is correct in my view. The second (just below it) by Juan Zarate and Thomas Sanderson,  “Adapting to Terrorism 2.0”,  is down right scary. George Orwell’s big brother could not have made the case better for bigger and more intrusive government for our own good. Are they deliberately trying to destroy our liberties or are they over zealot fools. Probably the latter.

Over the centuries our young men and ladies have risked and often lost their lives to keep us free. How ironic that in the name of keeping us secure our liberties are being increasingly eroded and threatened. It is worth reading a more extensive excerpt from James Madison’s prescient April 20, 1795 “Political Observations” quoted above:

“Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

“War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

“In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

“The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.

“No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it.

“In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them.

“In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.

“The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

–James Madison, from “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795 in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Volume IV, page 491.

About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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One Response to Are We Becoming A Nation of Cowards?

  1. wcoats says:

    Entered for Walter B. Slocombe

    Dear Warren – Good analysis. I suspect I am rather more supportive of what NSA does than you, but I agree there is a dangerous temptation (to which they seem to have succumbed) that if it is possible technically to collect data without directly violating the law then they should go ahead and do it. Your point about abuse of a surveillance system initially justified as reserved for extreme emergency is very valid. (My favorite real-world example — supposedly a British local authority used the TV cameras set up for the explicit and sole purpose of catching terrorists to monitor whether people were really separating the green from the clear glass when they put trash in the recycling bins.)

    And I agree with your point that it is not merely cowardly but dangerous to close all the embassies in the Arab world simply because two senior AQ leaders have chatted about mounting a big operation, with no more details. (Of course, my view would be different if it turns out the conversations were a good deal more specific — and the very unusual order for all Americans to leave Yemen suggests there may be more specific information by now.) The bad guys can make us look weak and silly if we over react to vague rumblings.

    On TSA — someone wisely said, “the purpose of TSA is not so much to defend against the next 9/11 but to defend against the next 9/11 commission.”

    Walt Slocombe

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