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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card June 24, 2002

Can We Build a High Enough Wall?

As we prepare for the next phase of our war against the Muslim terrorists who are struggling to destroy us, there are more and more American opinion leaders who question whether we should be fighting this war at all.

"Our only objective," they say, "is to protect American lives. What does attacking foreign countries and toppling foreign governments have to do with stopping criminals in the U.S.?

"It's a police problem," they say. "We need to catch these terrorists before they can strike on our soil."

In other words, when your neighbor's kid is trying to burn down your house, and his parents won't stop him, you mustn't go burn down his parents' house. Instead you must build a really high fence and keep him out.

OK, let's imagine what that would be like.

Can we build a high enough wall?

The answer is, Yes. Without question, we can.

All we have to do is stop being America.

After all, there were no terrorist attacks in Russia during all those long years of Communism.

Russia didn't lack for enemies -- I can imagine there were Poles and Hungarians and Chechnyans and plenty of others who would have been perfectly glad to conduct a campaign of sabotage and terror in order to try to win the independence of their homeland.

But such a campaign was a non-starter for the simple reason that you can't conduct a campaign of terror in a society where there is no freedom of movement.

When the police everywhere are likely to stop you and ask you for papers that give you permission to be where you are, it's very hard to get anywhere the government doesn't want you to go.

One way to build a high wall would be to issue every American citizen a fingerprint-and-photo i.d. card with a tiny transmitter in it. Every time you went from one state to another, or entered a public building, you would have to press a fingerpad. A computer would determine whether your fingerprint and the signal from your i.d. card matched.

A central computer would track the movements of all 300 million people likely to be in the U.S. during a given year -- a problem merely of scale, not of concept -- and identify all the people who were "out of pattern" (the sort of algorithm that might have caught Timothy McVeigh suddenly taking unusual trips) or who were in a suspicious network of associations (Arab nationals going to flight schools who also have contact with known Al-Qaeda members).

As long as you're just dropping off kids at school or driving to work, you wouldn't set off any alarms. But take a family vacation, and suddenly you find you're getting calls from the FBI, asking why you're in Kentucky or New Jersey and where you're headed next.

We'd probably find it easier simply to send our vacation plans to the government in advance, so our changing location wouldn't alert the computers.

But it's a short step from registering plans with the government to asking permission from the government.

And if your transmitter malfunctioned or the computer system fouled up your records and you were stuck at home for five years till some bureaucrat finally managed to figure out that you are really you, well, that's a small price to pay for safety from terrorism, isn't it?

Sounds like a nightmare to me.

Right now, the vast majority of people working on the problem of homeland security are good Americans who treasure our freedom every bit as much as you and I do.

They understand, however, that our very freedom makes it possible for our enemies to move among us undetected.

Freedom becomes worthless without a reasonable degree of safety. "My kids were blown up on the playground today, but at least we're free" is not a sentence any decent person could utter.

At the same time, safety is impossible without surrendering some degree of freedom. We don't let people walk into our houses and take our stuff. They aren't "free" to do that, but nobody thinks of that as oppression.

Perfect safety means complete loss of freedom. Perfect freedom means complete loss of safety. Somewhere in the middle, we have to find a balance we can live with.

How much safety do we need? Right now, we accept thirty thousand deaths by violence every year and we don't bat an eye.

I'm talking about highway deaths. Traffic accidents.

People who are outraged when doctors make mistakes, and punish them with huge malpractice judgments, are perfectly willing to go out on the roads with a whole bunch of other badly trained drivers with varying degrees of mental clarity, operating killing machines at high speeds.

We know that one hundredth of one percent of us will die every year by doing this, and it doesn't faze us.

Because we're used to it.

And if we had terrorism taking American lives at the rate of five thousand people a year, would we get used to that, too, and go about our business?

I don't think so. There's something far more terrifying about deliberate acts of random violence, about people getting killed when they were just going about their business -- sitting at their desks, waiting for a bus, tending babies in day care.

But I also think we should be terrified about putting into the hands of government the ability to track every movement of every person within our borders.

Because even if the first generation of people using this system were perfectly trustworthy, what about the next president?

After all, the FBI files that were "borrowed" by someone in the Clinton administration seem likely to have been used during the Monica affair to punish their opponents by exposing confidential information about them, in the best J. Edgar Hoover tradition.

Such information is not supposed to be used for political purposes, but when we elect or appoint dishonest people to high office, the machinery of state gets used in perverse ways.

Sometimes it's better not to have the machinery at all. Or at least to keep it out of government hands.

Ironically, much of the nightmare scenario I just talked about already exists, in a haphazard way.

The gaming industry in Nevada, for instance, already hires private contractors to do background checks on their employees and customers to identify criminals and cheaters.

Their software can, in a couple of minutes, find very subtle connections between people using false names, or acting as covers, and their real identities, or the coconspirators who are using them as a front.

They do this using information already available in business databases.

I recently saw a demonstration of this software that showed that, if two key pieces of information that were already in the possession of government agencies had been fed into this software before 9/11, every terrorist on those planes could have been identified in advance.

And when they all signed up for flights on the same morning, alarms could have gone off.

There are thousands of American families that wish our government had already been contracting with that private company to track suspicious foreigners.

And as long as government could only use such private background-check companies with proper safeguards in place, maybe the benefit to our safety would outweigh the cost to our privacy and freedom.

In the long run, though, we have to ask ourselves: Which is better, to surrender our own freedom and cease to be America in order to be safe, or instead go into the countries whose governments are sending these terrorists, depose those governments by force, and give the people in those countries at least some degree of the freedom and self-government that we enjoy?

Either way, the terrorists are going to make sure as many people as possible are killed.

But one way, the same number of people die, and there's far less freedom in America and abroad. The other way, those deaths lead to continued freedom here and greater freedom in the very countries whose governments are trying to hurt us.

And when you add into this equation the fact that if those governments pulled the plug on terrorism right now, we would stop making war against them, so that the continuation of the war is entirely at their option, it leads me to believe that we don't need to build a high fence at all.

We just need to get the neighbors who won't control their arsonist kid out of the neighborhood.

And, oddly enough, that is precisely what law enforcement is designed to do. People who commit crimes are removed from their neighborhood and forced to live with other criminals for a period of time.

So when we talk about terrorism being a police problem, I agree. Only the criminals happen to be national governments in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen.

And the only police who have the power to arrest them, remove them from power, and restore order are the armed forces of the United States.

Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.


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