Thoughts on the Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror

Conor Friedersdorf has a good post about the too-high price too many are willing to pay to stop terror (emphasis his; boldface mine):

Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack — by far the biggest in its history — roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.

Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States:

•71,372 died of diabetes.

•29,573 were killed by guns.

•13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.

That’s what things looked like at the all-time peak for deaths by terrorism.

Slightly over a month ago, each of the Boston Marathon bombings happened about 50 yards from my front door (as the crow flies, the Marathon Shoes store bomb was ever closer). And I happened, by chance, to be out on Boylston street about a minute after the first bomb detonated. Point being, the immediate, horrifying consequences of terrorism are not foreign or trivial for me–I’ve had direct experience with them a stone’s throw from my home. It’s not something I make light of or something I’ve only ‘witnessed’ on TV.

That said, I’m still far more worried about getting injured or killed crossing the street at Exeter and Boylston–the intersection between the two blasts–than a terrorist attack (for those who know the city, I’m referring to crossing from the northeast corner to the southeast corner to the Public Library). Drivers will often bull their way through on left turns even when pedestrians have the right of way and are already in the crosswalk. I don’t entirely blame them: it doesn’t help that the ‘feeder’ intersection of Exeter and Newbury is a mess thanks to pedestrians doing incredibly stupid things–leading to aggressive, frustrated and distracted drivers. Several times, I’ve almost been hit–and by almost, I mean inches from collision.

If you asked me, what would make me safer–and feel safer too (which should count for something):

1) blanket metadata surveillance of the country’s electronic communications to catch terrorists (and which didn’t stop the Tsarnaev brothers);
2) ‘announced’, unhidden security cameras at the corner of Boylston and Exeter (and other intersections) whose primary purpose is to deter ‘Massholes’ in cars from endangering pedestrians (i.e., aimed at the street, not the sidewalk);

I would go with option #2. I’m actually not a fan of that kind of surveillance either, but if I were told I had to choose one or the other option, the cameras would make me (and many other people who also use those intersections) far safer than a massive internet surveillance regime.

The reason I bring this up is something else Friedersdorf wrote:

The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can [do] and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute.

Again, I’m obviously not making light of what happened during this year’s Marathon, but put another way, that intersection alone, day after day, potentially offers far more danger from traffic than it does terrorism (in my Congressional District which encompasses part of Boston and part of Cambridge, 76 pedestrians were killed by cars from 2001 – 2010; no mention of injuries. And Boston is one of the safest cities for pedestrians). In a couple Boston neighborhoods, where the majority of murders happen, I don’t think residents are worried about either traffic-related fatalities or terrorism. What the NSA is doing isn’t really helping solve either of those problems, is it? Didn’t stop the Tsarnaev brothers for that matter, so what are we getting out of the supposed ‘deal’?

Something to keep in mind as the hyperventilating (and the pushback) continues over Glenn Greenwald and PRISM for the next couple of weeks.

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4 Responses to Thoughts on the Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror

  1. Jason F. says:


    But aren’t you making basically the same argument gun advocates make against gun-control laws? You say, “NSA collection of metadata didn’t stop the Boston Marathon bombers”, and gun advocates say “A background check system wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza”.

    • Vene says:

      Except the sole purpose of the NSA’s data collection scheme is to stop people like the Boston bombers, the sole purpose of background checks isn’t to stop mass shooters.

  2. Tracy Lightcap says:

    The problem here is that the opinion data on this strongly suggests that most Americans could care less about the kind of surveillance the PATRIOT Act allows. And, I might add, Congress thinks it’s ok; they don’t want to be blamed for lack of diligence to prevent future attacks any more then the executive does. Finally, the Nine long ago (1979) cut an exception out of the 4th amendment allowing both the NSA program (btw, why is everyone so upset about a program we’ve known about since 2005?) and PRISM.

    So, to put it short, you are concerned about this; Greenwald is concerned about this, the ACLU and some constitutional lawyers are concerned about this, and nobody who could actually change the channel is.

    Personally, I don’t like Big Data being used like this, but, hey, if Facebook is doing it, it’s unrealistic to expect that the government won’t. What we do need – and badly – is public scrutiny of FISA court decisions. At present, there’s no way to tell what the basis for the reviews given of the programs is. That hamstrings all the oversight mechanisms. Since we can take it as read that the terrorists know what we are doing and have known for a good while, I don’t see much reason for the secrecy. That would make revisions of the law and a slow weaning of ourselves away from the surveillance state easier. Fulminating about it is a waste of time: if we don’t like what’s going on, then we should chance the fucking laws.

  3. Pingback: Cities Can’t Be Pedestrian- and Car-Friendly | Mike the Mad Biologist

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