[ by Charles Cameron ]
Lex has posted a comment on my recent post, Countering Violent Extremism as a koan, a hall of mirrors, which I think deserves its own post and commentary. He begins by quoting me:
It is not a verbal problem with a verbal solution, it is a koan.
It has to be made into a law. The law will be enforced by men with guns, because law may be something more but is never something less than men with guns compelling others to do something they don’t want to do.
The rule that, once broken, the line, once crossed, that leads inexorably to the arrival of the men with guns (who also have mace, tear gas, clubs, handcuffs, paddy wagons and jails) has to be clearly articulated. The rule, the line, has tangible consequences, even if in our various subjective worlds we may be seeing different phantasms. The bullets, the gas, the handcuffs, the steel doors and cement walls, are real.
Making law is writing the rule and drawing the line, as you say very aptly, as denotatively as possible with as little connotation as possible.
We cannot have a fuzzy line that permits the boots to ascend the front stairs and back door to be smashed in. We forfeit our freedom if we give too much discretion to people whom you say must be wise, but which all history and experience tells us will not be and cannot be.
We must a clear line, in clear language, published, knowable and known — otherwise we forfeit our freedom, impose arbitrary abusive power on ourselves, and self-inflict more harm than any single terrorist bomb.
And as always with legal line-drawing, near the line there will be perceived and sometimes actual unfairness and injustice.
The gravest threat from terrorists, actual or wannabe, is not their terrorist acts. It is the destructive effect on our law, our government, our privacy, our freedom, which is immutable and ineradicable means and methods enacted (so we are told) to combat the threat.
The stars above are real. We evolved senses and brains that are acutely attuned to actual reality outside our skulls. If we had not our ancestors would have been eaten millions of years ago. The moon I see is the moon you see, is the moon, the real moon, the one moon. The metaphorical moon you incorporate in a poem is something I may never grasp, and your inner thoughts about the metaphorical moon may never be fully articulated, or articulable. But it is a grave error to confuse these things. Our bodies, senses, brains, for all their limitations, have been painfully carved over millions of bloody years of pitiless conflict to be reality-knowing and reality-responding machines. On that foundation we build all the imaginary or tacitly agreed things which are the culture the swim in, like a sea, not knowing we are wet, not knowing it is a sea, or that we are swimming, most of the time. But such cultures cannot be untethered from the reality they are built on. And cultures that fail to adequately respond to external reality, like individual organisms, and entire species, are destroyed by others better suited to survive and prevail over others.
So, we must not have a koan which requires wisdom as the basis for applying state power to seize a person, strip him of his liberty and possibly his life. We need the plainest, coldest, clearest statement of what the line is, and to enforce it.
My preference, for what little it is worth, is to never use state power against mere “thought crime.” A person who reads and becomes engrossed by terrorist propaganda may be a suitable target of police surveillance. But unless he acts in the tangible world to harm others, his inner thoughts should never cause him to be crushed by the state. Others will have different views. I base this on a Christian anthropology which places maximum value on the human person, and his/her dignity and freedom. Again others professing to be working from the same basis may arrive elsewhere.