History's Haunting Refrain
by Lee Harris
Political passion does strange things to people's minds.
For example, there is now a furious chorus denouncing America for having found no weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq. And their logic goes like this:
The attack on Iraq was justified by the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD's. None have been found. Therefore, the attack was not justified.
Now what is wrong with this argument?
To see this let us make some substitutions:
The FBI attack on the Aryan Supremacist Headquarters was justified by the claim that they had stashes of illegal weapons. None were found. Therefore, the attack was not justified.
The FBI attack on the Girl Scouts of America Headquarters was justified by the claim that they had stashes of illegal weapons. None were found. Therefore, the attack was not justified.
Now, if you are like me, you are likely to feel that the attack on the Aryan Supremacist Headquarters was not quite as unjustified as the attack on the Girl Scouts Headquarter. Why is this?
It is because most of us would agree that illegal weapons in the hands of redneck Nazis is a more harrowing prospect than illegal weapons in the hands of even the most forceful hawker of Tag Alongs and Thin Mints.
This is because, rightly or wrong, we do not generally feel that the Girl Scouts pose a threat; but, rightly or wrong, we do feel that redneck Nazis do.
Now why is this?
Very probably it is not because you have been the victim of any particular redneck Nazis; rather, it is because of what such people stand for, and believe in, and talk about.
But, in fact, they may be utterly harmless. They may simply be a bunch of foolish men who appear much more dangerous than they are - though, in most cases, this is because they have worked rather hard to give this misleading appearance.
And this is the problem with evaluating the significance of any threat.
Even when a threat is explicit, it is still uncertain. That is, if someone calls me up in the middle of the night, breathing heavily into my telephone, and threatens to murder my favorite cat with a bazooka at 12:13 this coming Saturday, how much more explicitness can I want? And yet, there is one thing that I do not know, and cannot know, namely the one thing that I most need to know: Is this guy serious?
This is the problem with the nature of threats in general. They introduce a profound uncertainty into your life; and anyone who has ever been threatened in this way knows exactly what I am talking about. If your wife has received an anonymous death threat by telephone, what is the sensible thing to do about it? Do you leave work and come home? Do you change phone numbers? Do you move to a different state?
Of course afterwards, all may become clear. The caller may reveal himself to be an idiot prankster, in which case your decision to sell your home and move to another state will look a bit ridiculous; or he may murder your family, in which case your decision not to sell your home and move to another state will look like a callous disregard of the welfare of your loved ones.
Those who are responsible for looking out after others, and not just their wife and family, but an entire nation, are often put in exactly this kind of dilemma. They feel that there is a threat; but, precisely because it is "just a threat," that is all they can do - have a feeling about it. And a feeling is not much to go on under such circumstances.
Any threat introduces an inevitable risk of being wrong on the part of those who are responsible for meeting this threat. It cannot be otherwise. If we could be certain in advance that a threat was not really a threat, we would not be threatened; we would be God.
The FBI may feel that the Nazi Supremacists pose such a clear and present danger to the community that the risk of raiding their headquarters and not finding illegal weapons is greater than the risk of not raiding their headquarters and permitting these weapons to be used one day against innocent men and women. And certainly, if there was no raid, and these guns did go off, who do you think would be blame for failing to act in time?
Failing to act in time is the haunting refrain of human history. If only we had seen, if only we had known, if only we had....
The price of failing to act in time has always been inordinately higher than the price of acting too soon.
And if you wish to beat up on the Bush administration, that is what you should be charging them with. You can denounce them for having acted too soon.
But be prepared to answer a simple question: When it comes to the chance of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a gang of thugs, just how soon is too soon?