Samuel Johnson once said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Patriotism, and bad analogies.
For the uninitiated, Godwin's Law is one of the cardinal rules of the Internet. Coined in 1990 by Internet law expert Mike Godwin, the principle -- confirmed by countless contentious comment threads across the web -- is that the longer an online discussion persists, the greater the odds become that someone will make a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler, to the point of near-inevitability. Nothing ends a debate faster than the hyperbolic unsupported counterfactual: "You know who else did [INSERT SUBJECT OF ARGUMENT HERE]? Hitler!"
But Hitler and the Nazis aren't the only recurring straw men used to end debates. Over the past 12 years, it's become clear that the longer a national security debate persists, the more likely it becomes that someone will try to end it by suggesting something -- some policy, some person, some technology -- "could have prevented 9/11."
The implication is that if something "could have prevented 9/11," then it must be justified. It's a trump card, a conversation-ender -- and it's impossible to prove. But that hasn't stopped people from using it -- from FBI Director Robert Mueller testifying on the Hill on Thursday to actor Mark Wahlberg's 2012 tough-guy claims. Here's a brief sampling of the people and policies that "could have prevented 9/11."
- June 13, 2013: FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about the surveillance of telephony metadata, claims that, had the technology been in place in 2001, it "could have derailed the plan.... If we had had this program that opportunity would have been there."
- March 4, 2013: Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, claims that if the United States had opened diplomatic relations with the Afghan Taliban, "maybe the 9/11 attacks would not have taken place."
- Aug. 26, 2012: Rep. Ron Paul claims his isolationist policies could have prevented 9/11, saying, "They say 'Osama bin Laden would still be alive if we listened to you,'... You know what I say? So would the 3,000 people killed on 9/11!"
- February 2012: Mark Wahlberg, who reportedly had booked a ticket for one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center but canceled his flight days before, tells Men's Journal, "If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn't have went down like it did.... There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin." (He has since apologized.)
- May 3, 2011: Sen. John Thrasher, making a case in the Senate for an immigration bill, claims that an E-Verify system could have caught the 9/11 hijackers, saying, "I wish we would have had the E-Verify system.... We might have saved the lives of 3,000 Americans." (PolitiFact rated this dubious claim a "Pants on Fire" lie.)
- Oct. 15, 2010: Agents from the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration write in the Los Angeles Times that WikiLeaks could have prevented 9/11 by sharing compartmentalized or suppressed intelligence. "If WikiLeaks had been around in 2001, could the events of 9/11 have been prevented?" they ask. "The idea is worth considering."
- Jan. 23, 2006: During the controversy that erupted during the last NSA surveillance scandal, Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the NSA when it began its warrantless wiretapping program, says of the monitoring, "Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such."
Assessments of the 9/11 attacks -- by everyone from members of the independent 9/11 Commission to Bush administration officials -- have time and again pointed out that there was no single point of failure that allowed the attacks to occur, and no "silver bullet" that could have prevented them. But acknowledging that is no way to cut short a debate about national security.
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