A modest proposal: Suppose that we decide to streamline our inefficient criminal justice system by treating people under suspicion of involvement with violent crime—whether or not they’ve been arrested, charged, or even informed of this suspicion—as equivalent to convicted felons. Suppose, then, that we permit them to be stripped of certain constitutionally protected rights at the discretion of the executive branch.
Outrageous? Some depraved brainchild of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel? Actually, it’s the editorial position of The New York Times:
Under federal law, people who pose a heightened risk of violence cannot buy or own firearms, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and several other categories. Suspected terrorist is not one them.
Individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from purchasing high-powered guns or explosives. Bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress would end this ridiculous loophole, commonly known as the “terror gap.
The Times does note, before dismissing the fact with the wave of a hand, that “thousands” of people have been found to be on the list improperly. But let’s linger a bit longer over this. The terrorist watch list, at last count, boasted about a million entries. When you eliminate variant spellings and duplicate entries—and rest assured that this would be another enormous source of problems—there are about 400,000 unique individuals on the list, of whom some 20,000 are Americans. Thousands more are nominated for inclusion on the list each week.
Employ, for a moment, some common sense and arithmetic. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 people. (I should add: 19 people armed with box cutters.) If even one percent of those 20,000 were truly intent on staging violent domestic attacks, doesn’t it seem likely we would have noticed? To be sure, some small subset of them really are serious threats. They are probably the very people the government is actively investigating, and would prefer not to tip off by, say, having their attempted gun purchases denied.
There’s also, of course, an almost heartwarming faith in formal process here. I can imagine circumstances where blocking someone at a point of sale might prevent bloodshed—some guy in the heat of passion or the haze of liquor acting on impulse to settle a score. But trained and fanatically committed terrorists, backed by the resources of an international network, who typically spend months or even years plotting significant operations? Are they serious? How does that conversation go? “No, no, I’m sorry Osama. Yes, the Wal-Mart clerk, she would not sell us a pistol! I know, and after Ayman went to all that trouble making our fake passports by hand. I was disappointed too. But I guess we’d better scrap the plan and head back to Yemen.”
What the other categories of “risky” people the Times lists have in common is that they’ve been determined to be dangerous by a court, which is normally the process by which we go about depriving people of their rights. It seems perverse to depart from that principle precisely for the category of suspects least likely to be hampered by these sorts of limitations.