Saturday, May 7, 2011

Post 9/11 America

I outsource the writing of this post to the Economist's Lexington

At home, a new generation is coming of age with little memory of the more open and trusting America of ten years ago. The new America keeps looking over its shoulder. It is permanently vigilant and relentlessly intrusive. Few people complain about the security-inspired hassles that have infected everyday activities, from boarding an airliner to applying for some required government document. Safety first is, understandably, the order of the day in a world in which killers hide bombs in their shoes and underpants. But the cumulative result of all these precautions is a wretched thing. A culture of suspicion, and its accompanying bureaucracy, take away trust in your fellow man. A less tolerant America, whose prosperity was built on openness to the world, has shut down its borders and locked out many of the skilled and eager immigrants whose help it could dearly use. 
How much of this can be reversed? A lot depends on whether people and their politicians see the value in trying. Early excesses in the war on terrorism, such as waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and “extraordinary renditions”, have been stopped or rolled back. America’s strong Bill of Rights, respect for the law and tradition of liberty have helped to hold the goons and snoopers at bay. But fear, and the awful deeds that fear inspires, are hard to uproot. Americans are already quarrelling about whether it was waterboarding, now banned, that produced the tip that led the CIA to Abbottabad. With Mr bin Laden in his watery grave, a chapter may close. But the country he attacked faces a long road home to the more innocent place it was ten years ago.
This is what Balko means when he says that Bin Laden won. I'm just barely old enough to appreciate these changes, though I think I would qualify as part of the post 9/11 generation. I have lived my entire adult life under the shadow of Bin Laden and the threat of terrorism. It would be nice for that threat to no longer dominate the conversation. Bin Laden's death would be a great excuse to start that healing process.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

False Equivalences

In an otherwise excellent leader in this week's Economist, the editors make this comment while talking about budget difficulties:

The bad news—and the second reason for gloom about what the politicians are up to—is that neither party is prepared to make the basic compromises that are essential to a deal. Republicans refuse to accept that taxes will have to rise, Democrats that spending on “entitlements” such as health care and pensions must fall.


This sort of false equivalence is extremely common in the mainstream press, but I am very disappointed to see it show up in the usually sharp Economist.

If it helps the editors at the economist, I can point them to quite a few attack ads from the 2010 election hitting Democrats for cutting 500bn from Medicare. Last I checked, Medicare was an entitlement program. Those cuts were in the context of a bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that is scored to reduce the deficit by over a trillion dollars over the next two decades.

Democrats have been very willing to look at entitlements. Almost too willing. Kent Conrad has spoken repeatedly about raising the retirement age, as have many Democrats. I think this is a bad idea, but since raising the retirement age was advocated on the cover of the Economist a couple weeks ago, you would think they might have noticed.

On the other hand, the GOP worships at the alter of Grover Norquist and his pledge to never raise taxes. Tom Coburn is the only one even willing to look at eliminating tax expenditures, and he's facing a lot of criticism for it. The GOP won't raise taxes, period. The Democrats, on the other hand, have already taken a whack at entitlements with Obamacare, and they're showing plenty of willingness to do more. In its effort to look fair and balanced, the Economist has perpetuated a trope that is flatly untrue. On deficits, the two parties are not equal. And that's the story nobody likes to tell.

Bin Laden

First things first. I stand in awe of the utter fearlessness and straight-up badassery of the soldiers and airmen in the 160th SOAR and SEAL Team Six. And, of course, the much maligned CIA really did a hell of a job finding him and running the mission. And yes, I am one of those people who poured a scotch when I heard the news. I will not apologize for feeling relief and deep satisfaction at the death of Osama bin Laden. More than anyone else, he's responsible for the deaths of thousands on 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror that has caused the deaths of thousands more. As a symbol and as catharsis for America, his death is very important.

But in many ways, this changes nothing. Al Qaeda won't go away now. Anwar al Awlaki is still hanging out in Yemen with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Taliban isn't going to stop fighting in Afghanistan. The insurgents in Iraq won't stop fomenting violence. And Americans don't seem eager to stop willingly giving up their civil liberties in the name of security. In some sense, as Radley Balko points out, Bin Laden had already won. The most depressing part is that not only did we let him, we helped him. Bin Laden provided the spark, but we willingly fanned the flames.

In some ways, it almost seems wrong to put this much significance on bin Laden's death. After all, the overblown significance attributed to his life and his goals caused many of the instances of overreach in the name of security. As Ross Douthat's very good column from Monday puts it: bin Laden was always weak. Where we erred was in not realizing that.

So will his death cause policymakers to rethink the choices we've made over the last decade? Will we stop taking away civil liberties in ways that do little to make us safer? Right now, the signs point to no. Unsurprisingly, bin Laden's death is being taken as vindication for whatever position politicians held before. Torture supporters want to bring back waterboarding. Anti-war advocates want us out of Afghanistan. This event does not seem to have changed anyone's mind.

To me, and others, this seems like the perfect time to declare victory in the War on Terror and go home. Maybe soldiers can stop dying in a fruitless quest to bring Western democracy to Afghanistan. Maybe we can start dismantling the massive industry that has grown up around this misguided "war." Maybe we can get some of our rights back. Maybe the defense budget can stop growing and start shrinking. Maybe we can stop taking our damn shoes off when we go through security.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

UPDATE: Douthat writes to dissent from Balko's piece, but I think they're arguing different things. Balko isn't laying American economic decline at Bin Laden's feet, he's laying the steady erosion of civil liberties over the last decade at his feet. Balko is an ardent civil libertarian and in his mind these measures are antithetical to the principles underlying the great project that is American democracy.

Ezra Klein is the one Ross should be arguing with, as he seems far more willing to lay a large amount of the economic problems of the last few years at the feet of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I don't find that argument as convincing, but there is some merit to it. Douthat's erstwhile co-author, Reihan Salam, just spent much of a blog post emphasizing the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to downplay the effects of the Bush tax cuts on our fiscal problems.

In the end, there's no way to resolve these arguments. But I firmly believe that from a civil liberties standpoint, Bin Laden did serious damage to America. In that, I definitely agree with Balko.