Specific Costs and Diffuse Benefits
Speaking of releasing prisoners (see my post below)… a terrorist formerly held at Guantanamo bay died in a gunfight with Pakistani soldiers this week. He blew himself up rather than be captured, suggesting he had valuable intelligence to hide. The gentleman was released from Gitmo a few years ago. He immediately rejoined the jihad, terrorizing the Afghan-Pakistan border area. Notable accomplishments include kidnapping two Chinese engineers, one of whom died. It turns out that he is one of many Gitmo alumni to resume their violent ways.
There are several lessons here.
1) There has been significant discussion over how long the detainees can be held without criminal charges being brought. Cases like this demonstrate that the conflict in which they took part has not at all ended, because the Taliban have chosen not to lay down their arms.
2) The initial round-up of combatants during the invasion of Afghanistan was not the blind and capricious sweep it is sometimes made out to be.
3) The determination of who gets released from the base is badly flawed, perhaps because of the political pressure to reduce the number of detainees. This is not the first time the poor souls of Guantanamo have returned to violence, despite signing statements upon their release promising not to. How did this guy slip through? It was easy. He simply said he was someone else. Of course, the question is why anyone believed him. While there may be hapless peasants, humanitarian workers, and tourists picked up in Afghanistan, one must understand that, unlike traditional combatants, the current enemy will not be giving name, rank and serial number. Indeed, the mixing with the civilian population that gives terrorists a bad name in the field continues after apprehension, again with negative consequences for the innocents.
4) There is a broader point here about specific versus diffuse consequences. The internment at Gitmo is very specific: one can put a face to the story, see the people being detained for years. Thus the benefits of releasing them are immediate. Those who advocate for release, on legal or geopolitical grounds, can point to the immediate harm being done by the Administration, while taking credit for helping real people. However, the consequences of releasing these people are diffuse, in the sense of being somewhat removed in time and place. The Wall Street Journal reports that at least 30 released detainees have for sure returned to their old ways, there are doubtless more that have not been identified, as the former detainees do not go around wearing big gemstone rings with “Gitmo ‘04” on them.
This imbalance creates a natural bias against Gitmo, where costs are apparent and benefits concealed. Indeed, criticisms of Gitmo seem to recognize the “diffusion” point. International demands to shut down Gitmo, which would result in the release of many but mostly in the reshuffling of most detainees to a number of different locations, are all about the diffusion.
Just as advocating for continued internment requires accepting responsibility for the innocents, it seems advocating for the release requires accepting the responsibility not just for the immediate appealing consequences but for the diffuse negative consequences, which are often measured in lives and terror.
This is an example of the general bias towards inaction versus action because the consequences of doing nothing are harder to trace. Many Americans were horrified with the consequences of our involvement in the Vietnam War. As James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal today, Sen. John Kerry argued in the early 1970s that a withdrawal from Vietnam would not result in a bloodbath. Like many claimed then and continue to claim now, the domino theory was bunk. However, a bloodbath ensued. The dominoes (Laos, Cambodia) fell to communism.
Yet Kerry in recent years has said a bloodbath just did not happen. This willful blindness is I think typical. Have any critics of the war in Vietnam accepted responsibility for the massive loss of life and freedom that their policies caused? To be sure, this does not make the policies wrong. Maybe a bloodbath and invasion of two neighboring states was worth the end of US involvement, but that is a case to be argued. My concern is that as soon as the immediate problem disappears (i.e., U.S. presence in Vietnam, ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Gypsies by Albanians), the attention of polite society shifts, and future problems (mass slaughter of South Vietnamese supporters and imposition of tyranny; ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians) are ignored or brushed under the carpet to avoid feeling bad. One can see the same phenomenon in Zimbabwe, where the worst predictions about Mugabe’s regime seem mild in comparison with the reality. Yet he was brought to power with overwhelming international support. But now the plight of his country hardly seems of interest to anyone, and certainly no one would suggest that Western policies contributed to it.
The point I’m making here is policy neutral. If it is correct to oppose the Vietnam War, or the Czar, or the Shah, this does not mean that having solved the first problem one should ignore the problems of the solution. Indeed, what we’re now doing in Iraq is taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of our policy against Saddam Hussein. You break it, you own it, as Secretary of State Powell said about Iraq. At this point we may have paid more than enough of our debt for “breaking” Iraq. But too often, we break it — or allow it to be broken — and simply walk away.