“If destruction be our lot … “

Pat Robertson, Abraham Lincoln, and the location of threats to American freedom.

Steve at Thoughts on Line points out that the Pat Robertson “judges are more dangerous than terrorists” line, for which the good Rev. has been taking such a pounding from United Blogistan, actually expresses an important (partial) truth.

As Steve puts it, “America is too big and too strong to be in danger of collapsing as a result of what happened on 9-11.” By contrast, he points out, domestic political developments do have the capcity to change the country in fundamental ways; catastrophic ways, from Robertson’s viewpoint though not from Steve’s.

The point isn’t original with Robertson or Thoughts on Line. It forms the theme of

Lincoln’s first great speech, his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1838:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? — Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

[Of course, this cuts both ways. With seeming prescience of the current moment, Lincoln immediately added:

I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts…

Not hard to figure which side Old Abe would take as between the courts and the Frist/DeLay/Ralph Reed axis, is it?]

I think Steve unduly downplays the risks we faced in both WW II and the Cold War, but he’s entirely right to say that the terrorist threat, imagined as more people flying planes into buildings, is dramatically smaller than either of those, and fairly small in the overall scheme of things. But I’d add two important qualfiers to that statement:

First, the hysteria of the American media, as displayed not only after 9-11 but during the Iranian hostage “crisis,” will greatly magnify the impact of any further terrorist attack, and, given a sufficiently serious one, could put the Constitutional order at significant risk.

Second, 9-11 is by no means the worst-case terrorist action. If one of those planes (or a much smaller aircraft full of high explosive) had hit a football stadium on a Sunday, the death toll would have been an order of magnitude higher. If it hit an LNG tank farm in a big city (the one along the Dorchester waterfront in Boston, for example) the death toll might be two orders of magnitude higher, though the last time I checked no one really understood the physics well enough to say whether an LNG tank farm explosion would or would not create a firestorm.

And that’s before we get to the WMD’s. Our friends in Pakistan have permanently made the world a more dangerous place, and our enemies in North Korea are busily making it more dangerous still, while we have our army tied down in Iraq and an Administration seemingly incapable of thinking about more than one problem at a time. The possibility of a nuclear explosion in an American city sometime in the next decade is by no means far-fetched.

Nor is a big biological attack ruled out; the fact that spreading smallpox in the U.S. would do much more damage to the developing world than it would to us doesn’t guarantee that no nutcase will decide to try it, and technically it wouldn’t really be very hard.

The basic fact is that destruction is easier than creation, and that the capacity of relatively small numbers of people to create massive destruction is growing by the year. So it’s a huge mistake to think that 9-11 forms some sort of upper bound on how bad a terrorist attack might be. In that sense, Robertson was simply wrong, even starting from his cultural assumptions.

At another level, though, Steve’s reflections just miss the point of the reaction to Robertson. His remarks were, in the most basic possible way, unpatriotic, in elevating our domestic division over our unity in the face of foreign threats. That can’t be tolerated.

That principle works on both sides of the aisle, of course. It’s one thing to think, as I do, that American plutotheocrats are a greater threat to American freedom than any currently visible foreign power; it would be quite another to say that Pat Robertson, or George W. Bush, is a greater enemy than Osama bin Laden. Loyalty to the nation in the face of attack from abroad shouldn’t be negotiable. One way to symbolize that is to maintain the taboo against, even rhetorically, preferring the nation’s enemies to one’s own political opponents.

Footnote It’s important to note that Steve’s point is logical, not polemical. He’s no fan of Robertson, and was one of the first Rightbloggers to denounce Tom DeLay.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com