Thursday, September 16, 2010

Can we just take a second to reflect on how freaking stupid this is?

Here's the Times yesterday on the debate going on in the USG about a military aid package intended for Yemen:

Senior State Department and American military officials are deeply divided over the pace and scale of military aid to Yemen, which is emerging as a crucial testing ground for the Obama administration’s approach to countering the threat from Al Qaeda.

As the terrorism network’s Yemen branch threatens new attacks on the United States, the United States Central Command has proposed supplying Yemen with $1.2 billion in military equipment and training over the next six years, a significant escalation on a front in the campaign against terrorism, which has largely been hidden from public view.

The aid would include automatic weapons, coastal patrol boats, transport planes and helicopters, as well as tools and spare parts. Training could expand to allow American logistical advisers to accompany Yemeni troops in some noncombat roles.

[. . .]

The Yemen quandary reflects the uncertainty the administration faces as it tries to prevent a repeat of the Dec. 25 attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by a Nigerian man trained in Yemen. American officials say a central role in preparing the attack was played by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric now hiding with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the network’s branch in Yemen.

A dude tried to get on an airplane in the U.S. with a bomb in his pants, and this is causing confusion about whether to give a country on the other side of the planet ONE POINT TWO BILLION DOLLARS in helos, patrol boats, and small arms.

Let's just reflect for a second on the stupidity of this.

Ok, cool.

Now go read Paul Pillar on this. I was planning to write something a little more involved when I came across his post, and he's way smarter than me.

Pillar's use of the term "perfect security" made me think about a very brief essay David Foster Wallace wrote three years ago on the meaning of 9/11. James Fallows linked to it last week, and it's worth sharing again. Wallace made a point that I've often made over the last several years: perhaps exposing ourselves to the risk of personal harm or death at the hands of violent extremists is just one of the many uncomfortable trade-offs we're forced to make to enjoy the benefits of a free society. I'm going to reproduce his essay here in full, because it's worth reading and because I think excerpting him tends to rob the text of some of the je ne sais quoi that made Wallace perhaps the most enjoyable read in the English language.

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?


1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let's just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency ... the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln's, more or less)

Re-reading this last week made me feel sad, both at the way our politics make Wallace's point fundamentally un-sayable for those from whom it would be most meaningful, and for the fact that last weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the virtuoso's suicide.


  1. A'hem. No coastal boats for Yemen until the USN gets their squadron of CYCLONE patrol boats back in SAT condition in the Gulf...


    The time will come when this terror scare appears no better than McCarthyism.


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