Saturday, July 1, 2017

National Security Issues Generally and Terrorism Specifically Are Political Issues (Back to a Very Basic "Basic")

I'm going to disagree with an assertion I heard on a very respectable NPR program this morning that national security issues — with protection from terrorism most immediately in question — aren't, or shouldn't be, political. They are political, and should be. 

Let's go back to one really basic point among the Basics.

Among the ways we humans divide up, there is the Soft-Hearted School that says at an extreme that human life, or at least the lives of Americans, is/are of infinite value, and "If it saves just one American life, it's worth it." Opposed to that is the Hard-Headed school that asks just what "it" we are talking about and how much "it" costs, including costs in terms of other values, such as freedom.

That gets us into questions that are difficult and dangerous — involving philosophy, theology, religion, and really basic values — and political.

Most Americans would be safer in a police state, so if safety is an absolute good, let's move toward a police state. But "most Americans" isn't all Americans, and some people would be a whole lot less safe in a police state. Which gets us into politics: Who pays for that safety, in several senses of the word "pays," and who profits?
            If you don't get the point of the question, ask around among Black Americans, or families with memories of escaping the secret police and/or death squads of the Czar, KGB, Shah, Stasi, Pinochet government, and so on for a substantial list.

Most Americans would be safer in a police state, but necessarily less free. Which gets us into safety vs. liberty — and again into politics.

One can and should believe each individual life of infinite value, but when practical matters come up, people must be willing to suspend that belief. For a prime example where it is necessary to do so, it is a moral imperative to perform triage, which can mean selecting whom to treat and possibly save, whom to let die. If every life is of infinite value, and we're talking the same sort of infinities here, it becomes impossible to do the bloody arithmetic of choosing to let even one person die that others might live. If you're going to perform the ethical imperative of minimizing casualties and suffering when you can, you find yourself deciding — as a practical matter then and there —the STAR TREKian question of the needs of the few or the one vs. those of the many.

Personally, I'm of the pragmatic school and hold that the sanctity of human life is a fundamental and absolutely necessary myth, but necessarily mythic: the belief requires either the Leap into the Absurd of believing in a caring God who chose human beings to be special; or the belief requires the outright absurdity of thinking that human beings on our own have some sort of special value.
            As the Bible saith, or Koheleth the Preacher, anyway, saith, in a stretch of Scripture rarely quoted by the pious,

I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts.  For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity [=emptiness].  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3.10-21)

It is very dangerous to deny the sanctity of even a single human life and sacrifice one for the survival of the group. It is also sometimes necessary. It is dangerous to assert the rights of privacy and movement and to put at risk the lives of Americans, including American children: lives that could be saved by government surveillance and freewheeling policing. If we wish to retain some privacy and freedom of movement, if we wish freedom from government control, we wish upon ourselves risk.

We don't have to resolve these issues, and we can't. We can try to balance various good things and risks and argue about the balance. That is, we can, and do, engage in politics.

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