The Blindness of Strangers

“Clever terrorists can use innovative ways to exploit vulnerabilities. But don’t forget that most bombers are not, in fact, clever. Living bomb-makers are usually clever, but the person agreeing to carry it may not be super smart. Even if “all” we do is stop dumb terrorists, we are reducing risk.”

Well, yes. Most criminals are pretty dumb, which is why they generally end up behind bars. Most tyrants are, if not dumb, at least inadequately advised, since nobody tells Attila the Hun anything he doesn’t want to hear. Which is why most tyrants do ultimately fall. And most governments are inefficient, which is why we have any civil liberties at all.

But is it possible to devise a society that is law-abiding and free, but governed and inhabited by intelligent, well-informed people? Or are we always dependent on the stupidity of strangers to leave gaps in tyranny and crime in which we can continue to survive?

It may be time to start worrying about this problem, as governments, for instance, get more efficient and better informed. Chicago has almost as many video cameras in public spaces as London, for example. Most of the time, I like that. It’s nice to know somebody is watching the idiots who zoom through stop signs and red lights, and the mopes who lift my wallet. But do I want those same people, or maybe a more maliciously disposed subset of those people, to watch me on my way to a political meeting?

I mostly don’t care that my phone calls and emails are probably the subject of some overworked spook’s surveillance, because we have learned from the lessons of 9/11 that merely possessing information does not necessarily improve the Establishment’s ability to use it. As one spook pointed out to the 9/11 Commission, you don’t improve your chances of finding a needle in a haystack by increasing the quantity of hay. Once again, our freedoms are dependent on the inefficiency of government. What happens if They find a solution to this particular problem? Do we just presume—not unreasonably, so far—that another problem will arise out of the solution, and so on? It was good enough for Hegel and Marx. Maybe for now, it’s the best we can do.

Red Emma

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