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Tuesday, March 18, 2003
THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED 30,000, OR 300,000, IF THEY COULD:
The usually perceptive Eugene Volokh falls for one of the dumbest arguments around here (scroll down):
Volokh quotes with approval Tony Blair saying the following:
"[W]hat was shocking about September 11 was not just the slaughter of the innocent; but the knowledge that had the terrorists been able to, there would have been not 3,000 innocent dead, but 30,000 or 300,000 and the more the suffering, the greater the terrorists' rejoicing."
Why is this such a dumb argument? Because it confuses intent with capacity. Suppose that John Doe, an otherwise mild-mannered (I love that term from the old comic books!) American, wishes to kill 300,000 people with a nuclear weapon. That intention alone does not make him dangerous, unless he has the capability of carrying out his intention.
Similarly, the fact that the terrorists (Al Qaeda, by the way, not Iraq) would have rejoiced if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 people does not magically convert the terrorists into a greater threat than they otherwise are. Here's a simple formula for the dangerousness of terrorists: terrorists are as dangerous as the lesser of their capacity to inflict injury, and their intention to do so. Thus, a person with the most murderous intentions imaginable is not dangerous if he or she lacks the means of carrying those intentions out, or is only somewhat dangerous if he or she is capable of killing a few people but is incapable of a mass killing. In contrast, a person with the capability of inflicting mass harm is not automatically dangerous if he or she has no intention of carrying such harm out.
Al Qaeda is a severe threat, though to the extent that the US' operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are weakening the organization's capabilities, it is probably less of a threat than it was on September 12, 2001. Still, to rather inappropriately paraphrase Robert Browning, their reach exceeds their grasp, and it is their grasp that defines their dangerousness. The fact that they might rather prefer killing 300,000 Americans is not relevant unless it is demonstrated that they are capable of doing so.
The converse may be true with respect to Iraq. Iraq has some capability to inflict mass destruction (though their capabilities have been degraded by inspections, compelled destruction of weapons, and bombings over the 12 years during which conservatives have falsely charged that we have done nothing to hold Saddam Hussein in check). But the allegations of Iraq's involvement in anti-US terrorism (other than a targeted attack on the President that evicted them from Kuwait, which implies a revenge motive rather than a motive to commit mass murder) have been quite speculative. Certainly we have been able to manage much larger and more certain threats of terrorism from other countries in the region without having to wage preemptive war. Iraq's capability to inflict harm to Americans is only relevant to the extent it does not exceed its intention to do so.
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