It took the uproar over the NYT's expose on the methods used by the US government to track terrorist finances for Andrew McCarthy at the National Review to state the fundamental tradeoff between safety and restricting our ability to fight the enemy. Do you want to stay safe? If so a certain amount of resistance against the enemy is indicated, such as for instance, gathering intelligence.
The only way to prevent terrorist attacks is to gather intelligence. It is to collect the information that reveals who the jihadists are, who is backing them with money and resources, and where they are likely to strike. There is nothing else.
How do you get such intelligence? Your options are few. The terrorists you capture, you squeeze until they break. Since your laws and protocols forbid physical coercion, you must employ psychological pressure — relentless detachment and loneliness that may render a battle-hard, hate-obsessed detainee hopeless enough and dependent enough on his interrogators to tell you the deepest, deadliest secrets. So you move your captives to places where they will be isolated, and forlorn, and … eventually — maybe after a very long time — moved to tell you what they know about their fellow savages.
Otherwise, you use your technological wizardry to penetrate their communications. You use your mastery of the global web that is modern finance to find the money and follow it — until you can pierce the veiled charities and masked philanthropists behind the terror dollars. Until you strangle the supply lines that convert hatred into action. ...
Life or death. Which one it will be turns solely on intelligence and secrecy.
But what's required to gather intelligence sits uneasily with individuals and institutions who fear these methods are brutal, dangerous and warlike, which of course they all are. And so they undermine them at every turn to ease their conscience.
What on earth would George Washington have made of Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and his comrades in today’s American media? What would he have made of transparently politicized free-speech zealots who inform for the enemy and have the nerve to call it “patriotism.” Who say, “If you try to isolate barbarians to make them hand up the other barbarians, we will expose it.” “If you try to intercept enemy communications — as victorious militaries have done in every war ever fought — we will tell all the world, including the enemy, exactly what you’re up to.” “If you track the enemy’s finances, we will blow you out of the water. We’ll disclose just what you’re doing and just how you’re doing it. Even if it’s saving innocent lives.”
There would be no problem with the NYT's leaks, or acceding to demands that every enemy combatant be provided with the full panoply of procedural protections, requiring that captured terrorists only be asked their name, rank and serial number -- if they have any of those -- and insisting that gentlemen don't read other people's mail for so long as one was willing to pay the price. The problem is that many of the very same persons who want to restrict society's ability to make war also want casualty free wars, no collateral damage to enemy targets and a guarantee of safety not only to the population of the US and Allied Countries, but even to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not principled behavior. It is infantile behavior.
Really principled behavior requires a willingness to sacrifice and suffer in exchange for restricting certain methods of warfare in order to preserve certain principles. Do we think wiretapping the enemy without warrants is dangerous? Then let's restrict it, fully understanding that it will make the war longer, allow threats to form undetected, even cost "innocent lives". Either that or embark upon some tradeoff with which society feels comfortable. But never, never is it possible to demand the free lunch. To say: bring the boys home but don't abandon Iraq; we support the troops, but don't allow them to shoot unless actually shot at; prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction but leave it to the United Nations. Each of these demands spoken simultaneously contains the seed of a contradiction. The intelligent thing is to recognize this and make intelligent choices about what we are prepared to give up and at what price. The alternative is to do what has been done up until now. Make impossible demands and insist that they all be fulfilled.
The sermon of last Sunday described the travails of one parish priest in the diocese, originally from Vietnam (though the homily was delivered by someone else), who managed to organize an escape for his entire family in 1981, minus his parents, who were too old to make the attempt. They were betrayed at the last minute, and as they were wading out the boat, the government troops arrived and opened fire on them. The future priest was struck glancingly in the head and temporarily lost his sight and struck out swimming for the boat which by fortune or providence he found. Once out of the sight of land, another menace appeared: pirates, men who habitually preyed on desperate families escaping the worker's paradise. And the story went that the entire boatload went down on their knees and prayed; and again, whether by fortune or providence a squall swept in and hid them from the brigands. And as I was listening to the account it struck me, that just as the Vietnamese priest's freedom was not free; neither were the "principles" of the antiwar movement who condemned him to that fate which he had such difficulty escaping. One can always march for Ho Chi Minh again; and march in the name in principle. But it should never be possible to march in ignorance. "Principle" has a price though you may never know who pays.