- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

Regarding the current debate over whether to expand the powers of law enforcement after New York, and how to expand them, a few thoughts: A lot of people are focusing on their chosen hobby horses while rigorously overlooking the larger question.
For example, people who fear government are adamantly against any increase of police powers, and simply ignore the question of terrorism. People who don't like guns don't want to arm pilots, and simply ignore the question of terrorism.
People who worry about civil rights oppose surveillance of resident aliens.
If the desires of all these groups were respected, then the country would do virtually nothing in response to terrorism, except perhaps put stronger latches on cockpit doors. (I don't think any lobby opposes this.) Some group exists to block almost any measure that might be effective. They all want to increase security, but not at the price of their own narrow concerns.
Putting it otherwise, they want to make major changes, but without changing anything.
Is this possible? Now, sez me anyway, either we are serious about reducing terrorism, or we aren't. Either we think there is a real likelihood of further massive terrorism, or we don't. (The third possibility, of course, is that we do expect further destruction, but each side will refuse to yield on anything until something else blows up.)
If we are serious, we can't reject all security measures merely because someone doesn't like them. Certain things can be done without offending the Constitution or threatening to impose totalitarianism. Arming pilots, for example. This is clearly legal and constitutional; it involves no increase in governmental powers, does not boost the availability of guns, and would vastly improve our ability to resist hijacking.
Should we lose further flights to placate the anti-gun people? Having made the easy changes, the question then becomes, or so it seems to me: To what extent is it possible to deter terrorists without increased police powers? Without interfering in the lives of at least some people? Without causing inconvenience?
For example, whether you favor it or not, searching Muslim passengers and their seats would make a lot of sense from the standpoint of security. It would inconvenience a lot of perfectly law-abiding people. It would also lead to lawsuits.
Where does one draw the line between the comfort of a few versus the safety of many?
A very useful countermeasure to terrorism is positive identification. If retina scans were employed widely, and if the civilized nations of the world shared retinal files of known or suspected terrorists, it would be much harder for such people to move freely or to board aircraft.
Given the ease of networking databases today, banks and so on could easily check customers against a list of terrorist suspects. Today anyone can enter the country legally or otherwise and just disappear. But such scans would certainly constitute increased surveillance.
The uncomfortable fact is that the heart of antiterrorism is watching people watching certain types of people, sales of certain things, transport of certain things. How do you do it without doing it?
Considerable watching is already quietly done, and has been done for years. If you buy large amounts of chemicals used in the production of cocaine, such as ether, the company will report the sale to the authorities, and the DEA will take an interest. The movement of large quantities of money is watched by people who try to catch money-launderers. Most of it is aimed at drugs, not terrorism. If no further attacks occur, none of this will be important. But if they do, I suspect we will find that the means of countering terrorism inevitably will involve much greater surveillance, and a reduction in civil rights.
If Ahmed can park an RV near a crowded stadium, and the cops can't search it because they have no probable cause, then we are wide open. I'll guess it won't take many more attacks with major body counts before pressure for much greater surveillance becomes so great it will sweep objections aside.
The attacks won't necessarily be sufficiently impressive to arouse the fear needed to change laws. But if they do come, and are serious, the chances are good that people will begin to worry more about safety than about privacy and anonymity.
What the consequences might be, I don't know.

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