Speeches

Remarks at Cato Institute Conference on Terrorism

When we think about what America should give up in order to improve security against terrorism what we need to do is take a very hard headed and clear look at what we can gain and the price that we are supposed to pay.

Let’s take a look at the benefit side or the size of the problem in the first place. There has never been a year in the United States in which the total deaths from terrorism—international, domestic, everything put together—has been two hundred lives. So, let’s start with that as the high side of saying that terrorism costs two hundred lives per year. We will thereby avoid any risk of underestimating the problem.

Let us further take the goal of the Clinton Administration, which is that we can totally eliminate this. This risk of two hundred lives, or somewhat less, can be reduced down to zero. As Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Jamie Gorelick once said, “We must and will come up with the tools to prevent these events.”

So, we perhaps have two hundred lives hanging in the balance here. Well, what would we give up to save those two hundred lives? I can think of two ways in which we could save more than that lives with changes in our society that are far less meaningful than the changes that are being purposed to reduce terrorism.

First of all, we could outlaw ladders, because falls from ladders and scaffolding cause 317 deaths per year in the United States, roughly fifty percent more than the maximum annual toll of terrorism. That wouldn’t mean that you couldn’t ever go up on your roof. You would just have to rent a cherry picker and use that and get up much more safely. Or, at the very least, we could seriously license and restrict ladders to people with proper safety training.

A second step would be to outlaw bathtubs. Doesn’t mean that you couldn’t get clean. You would simply instead of using bathtubs, take a shower. There are 312 deaths per year in the United States associated with bath tubs, people drowning in them. And yet, with all these lives saved, there is no serious proposal to outlaw bathtubs—a relatively minor intrusion that would save fare more lives than would anti-terrorism legislation.

We also have 42,000 fatalities a year from automobile accidents. Now, getting rid of automobiles would involve changes somewhat more significant than getting rid of bathtubs. But after all, we do have public transportation and we’d have all these auxiliary benefits of reducing pollution and yet eliminating private automobiles isn’t even considered as a possibility despite the enormous life saving potential we have from that.

Now, why is that with terrorism, which is a smaller risk than any of these three things that I mentioned, ladders, bath tubs, and automobiles, we have this idea that we are going to eliminate this risk entirely and save those lives, but we don’t even consider for a second the much greater life savings we could have from these other relatively minor reforms?

Well, I think one of the reasons is that in general people tend to view risk in a skewed way. They don’t look at it the way an accountant or a statistician might in a purely quantitative sense, but instead certain risks get a lot more attention than others. In particular, catastrophic risks over which an individual has no control at all are seen as very, very important even if the actual size of the risk is almost infinitesimal.

One of the clearest examples of that is airline flight insurance. Now, any actuary can tell you that when you spend eight or fifteen or twenty dollars to buy insurance for a particular flight you are on going down that it is the stupidest insurance move that you could possibly make in the world. And you are paying a premium that is grotesquely disproportionate to the potential pay off. But, air travel makes people really, really nervous. I came in from Colorado. I flew from Denver. It is much safer for me to do that than it would be for me to drive from Denver, by a very a large factor. And yet, airports are all full of these little vending machines where you can buy travel insurance for flying. But, you won’t see anywhere on Interstate 70 where they will sell you travel insurance for taking that same trip at a much higher risk. And that is because people when they are driving feel that I in the car, I’m in control of it and I feel safe about that. As to in the airplane, someone else is behind the wheel and they have got very little control over their safety at that point. That is why the small airplane risks get so much more attention than the much larger automobile risks.

Another illustration of this, I saw a few years ago there was a nice puff piece in the New York times about Lois Gibbs who is an activist at Love Canal up in New York and has gone on to found a national campaign to essentially outlaw the use of all potentially toxic chemicals and require every landfill in this country to be cleaned up to absolute pristine conditions down to the very last molecule. And, this very laudable article about what a great citizen activist she was had a picture of her standing on the steps of the state capital pregnant and smoking a cigarette. Now, the risks of somebody being injured living a mile away from a land fill that is operated properly, but may have some toxic chemicals contained in there is .00001 compared to the risk that you impose on a fetus when you directly ingest nicotine again, again, and again into the mother’s body. It’s not even close which one is more dangerous. One risk is something that people can control and the other is an externality. That’s why toxic waste dumps, among other things, get all of this attention even though the scientists at E.P.A. and just about anybody else who follows this closely can tell you that hazardous waste and issues like that and Superfund are given hugely disproportionate attention compared to their actual environmental threat.

In Calculus, I learned as a senior in high school, that you can have a graph or some function that is approaching a number. You can get to ninety-nine, then ninety-nine and a half, and 99.99 and 99.993, 99.99986 and as you graph that out the line may never actually approach what is called the limit of say a hundred in this case. But you get closer and closer to it and for all practical purposes you’re their and you say the function has reached the limit.

Unfortunately, this simple Calculus principle doesn’t seem to come to play in public policy. Where, rather than saying 99.9996 is pretty good and we are going to stop there. There is on so many fronts that we have to go beyond that and get all the way out to one hundred no matter what the cost.

In environmental contamination, a field which I had some practice , enforcing hazardous waste laws for the state of Colorado, this results in a very disproportionate share of our private and government dollars that are devoted to environmental clean up that are being devoted to chasing things down to the last molecule. It’s very important to get the first 99 percent of the waste. It’s important to get most of that remaining one percent. But, when you’re down to 0.001 percent and you are still chasing those very few molecules it gets very expensive to get those last ones out and you may double the cost of the project for essentially no gain at all in actual safety.

Now, back to the risk of terrorism. Terrorism is a sensational event. When there is a terrorist attack in the United States everybody knows about it within a day at least. Usually, they find out about it within minutes if they are the kind of folks that watch CNN.

And, naturally the things you see on television tend to be the things that people think about the most. There is plenty of studies of how television skews people’s perceptions of the world. For example, polls consistently ask people, “Are you happy in your marriage?” And 75 percent of the people say ‘yes.’ And they also say, “Do you think that most other people are happy in their marriage? What fraction of the rest of the population is happy in its marriage?” And the answer is about 10 percent. That is because on T.V. you don’t see a lot of happy marriages. You see a lot of dysfunctional things going on in all kinds of different senses.

People tend to rely on the T.V. for the state of America’s marriage, crime problems, and many other things leading to a very skewed perspective. In fact, the risk that any given American in the United States will be killed by a terrorist attack is about the same as the possibility that if this weekend you go to a high school football game close your eyes and point to one player on the field at random that player will one day be the starting quarterback in the Superbowl. It’s not a zero risk because somebody is going to be the starting quarterback at the Superbowl, but it is a very very very small risk.

Now what is the price that we may pay to potentially eliminate this very small risk? I think the closest example for us is not Israel, but Great Britain our mother country and the source of many of the great liberties that we have in the United States. In a little over two decades in Great Britain a magnificent edifice of liberty that was built up over centuries and centuries starting back with Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was the father of the Magna Carta, has been squandered. Britain right now is a much less free country than it was two decades ago.

Where this really started was in 1974 the Irish Republican Army bombed a pub frequented by soldiers in Birmingham. Within a few weeks, the government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill. That was in the title. It was called “temporary provisions.” It was supposed to be in effect for only one year. In fact, it has been renewed every year since then and is still in effect.

It allows a suspected terrorist to be searched without even the need for a warrant. It allows the government to label organizations as illegal and then it makes it illegal for an individual even to organize the leading of such an organization or even to wear clothes indicating that the individual supports that organization, and it makes it illegal for any words for that organization to be broadcast on television or the radio.

The government is allowed to set up a form of internal exile—saying you as an individual may never travel to Scotland ever, or to Northern Ireland, or to Wales. This form of internal exile called an Exclusion Order can be imposed administratively. There is no appeal from it. Secret evidence can be used and the victim of this order never gets to confront the evidence against him.

In Norther Ireland now, there is no jury trial in political violence cases and coerced confessions obtained by police beatings and other coercive techniques are routinely admitted into evidence.

In Great Britain, now, you do not have a right to remain silent anymore when you are accused of any crime. If you remain silent, your silence can and will be used against you in court.

This was a provision that was originally introduced solely as an anti-terrorism measure, but like so many other measures quickly spread and infected the entire criminal justice system.

In Great Britain, the government can do black bag jobs. They can break into somebody’s house, do whatever they want, steal their property. And, they can do all the wiretaps they want with no need at all for judicial approval. Boy, wouldn’t that make the Clinton Administration happy?

And what has all of this led to? Well, the first time the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was actually used was after a pub bombing a little while later in the British town of Guilford. Four young Irish people were arrested for it. They were drugged. They were coerced into signing confessions they didn’t even understand. Perjured evidence was used against them. Manufactured evidence was used against them. And they were convicted of this bombing.

A little while later the same thing happened to six people who were falsely accused of the Birmingham bombing. They became known as the Birmingham Six. As the movie In the Name of the Father talks about the people in the Guilford bombing, eventually, after decades in prison, these people were finally freed when some of the perjured evidence was discovered.

Roy Jenkins, the author of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, his great credit, was one of the great leaders in the campaign to free these innocent people who had been falsely imprisoned.

Now they good thing for them was that they were falsely imprisoned in Great Britain, because if the same thing happened in the United States, where we have a death penalty now and habeas corpus has been drastically reduced so we can speed up executions and kill people more quickly, those people would have been executed and any vindication they might have had would have been posthumous.

Now what did Great Britain get for all of this tremendous sacrifice of its civil liberties? Great Britain has gone from the country, for almost as far back as you can look in European history, since a century or two after the Norman Conquests, up until very recently, was seen throughout Europe as the exemplar of human rights. As the freest society, British people were the most individualistic; they had greatest freedom; the government was much more restrained. It was a shining light of civil liberty throughout western and eastern Europe.

And now, in two decades, Great Britain has become the country which more than any other nation, which is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the country which is found to be in violation of those rights by the European Court of Human Rights. They have gone from being the best to being the worst in western Europe in just two decades.

And they still have plenty of terrorism. You read about it all of the time in the newspapers. The I.R.A. is still out there. They still have the bombings. Your risk, as a British citizen, of being blown up by a bomb at a pub or anyplace else is no less now than it was twenty-three years ago.

But, your risk of being victimized by state terror, by official government violence and violation of your civil liberties, is much much higher now than it was before.

Of course, as with so many government programs, nothing succeeds like failure. All of the losses the British people have endured already for their civil liberties are just the starting point, as the government every time there is a new incident says, “Well, we need more power. If only we had more power, then we would be safe. So give us some more.”

We see ,of course, the same cycle here in the United States. Every incident now leads the Clinton Administration to say, “Well, just give us more and more and more.” There is no stopping point for this process because you never get to the point of complete safety where these incidents never happen. Nor, do you ever get to the point where the government’s desire for power is ever satiated.

Benjamin Franklin once said that people who trade their fundamental liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither. The bargain we are being asked to make in terrorism legislation isn’t even that good. This heinous legislation, which passed last April, the anti-terrorism legislation—one of the most repressive, ominous bills that has ever been passed by the United States Congress—does not contain a single provision which anybody could credibly say would have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing; which was, after all, what caused this legislation in the first place.

Back in the book of Genesis, Esau sold his birth right for a mess of pottage. It was known as one of the worst deals in history. At least he got a meal out of it. In contrast, the anti-terrorism legislation that is being promoted today won’t even give us a good lunch. We will trade our fundamental liberties, our birthright of civil liberties that has been won over many many centuries at a tremendous cost for no gain in our real security. Thank you.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute.