An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Friday, July 09, 2004
Will Guilt By Association Cook Our Bacon?

Our government is tossing people in jail and holding them, more or less incommunicado, for indefinite periods of time, often without any formal charges against the detainees. News reports have told us that the grounds for detention are often no more substantial than that the suspect (or worse, the uncharged "material witness" or "person of interest") once did business with the friend of a relative of someone who is believed by the authorities to have "strong ties" to Al Qaida. Some of these tenuous threads of connection will pay off, just as a huge net will catch some fish. I expect, however, that most of the connections will lead nowhere, with the result being that the lives of hundreds or thousands of people will be disrupted in significant ways, without making our society as a whole any safer. Indeed, life will be a lot less safe for detainees, whose crowd will swell with time.

It's always easy to support restrictions of someone else's liberty, especially when the goal is to make "everyone safer." But how many people who support the War on Terror now would do so, given the realistic expectation that they themsevles would someday number among the detainees?

Consider Kevin Bacon. It is said that there are only six links from Kevin Bacon to anybody else in the world. How long is the human chain between Kevin Bacon and Osama bin Laden, then? How long is the human chain between Osama and you?

Should our protectors in the government get edgy and put a citizen on a watch list -- or a list of potential detainees -- if there are fewer than four links between that citizen and OBL? Maybe even someone who is separated by five or six links can provide information that helps the government score points in the "Where's Osama" game. You never know. Heck, there must be thousands in the US alone who are just one or two degrees of separation from Osama. Wouldn't the efficient prosecution of the War on Terror require the detention and questioning of all of them, "just to be on the safe side"?

The person with common sense will realize that most connections that are deeper than a couple of levels of indirection are practically no connections at all. Fingering a person on the basis of such a connection is practically the same as picking someone at random from the telephone book. Yet the descriptions of some of the chains of connection between detainees we have learned about and any real terrorists, lead me to believe that there isn't a lot of common sense in the War on Terror, or among the uncritical supporters of it.

Maybe we could start a new parlor game: tracing the connections between those prosecuting the War on Terror and Osama bin Laden. Wouldn't it be hilarious if it turned out that the "detainers" were interpersonally closer to the real criminals than most of the "detainees"? Then again, isn't that often the way of things?


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