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Eliminate all risk as the notion behind strip search and photo ID

by Eric Ferguson on April 7, 2012

In introducing a segment on the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court that strip searches can be conducted with no suspicion of the person being searched being required, Kerry Miller mentioned a phrase used by a critic, that “All risk be eliminated at the expense of those who pose little risk”. Most commentary on that decision has focused on the potential for abuse of power by police and guards, but another aspect is that such reasoning provides an insight on conservative thinking that makes no sense to liberals, including on photo ID, and other issues too.

The specifics of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington involved strip searches of a man arrested for an unpaid traffic fine. The odds someone arrested for a traffic fine is planning to sneak anything into jail seems vanishingly small, but is it absolutely impossible such a person would not have hidden something in a body cavity? No. Might never happen, but could. So the thinking is it’s OK to remove any risk, even at the cost of strip searching people arrested for any petty offense. The thinking seems to be that removing a risk, however small, justifies any problems caused thereby.

Sound at all like photo ID? Sound at all like the case for invading Iraq?  
Certainly some photo ID proponents are in denial about the rarity of voter fraud, but most seem to know and not care (relax conservatives, just my impression from listening to some of you, in case you strongly feel that doesn’t describe you). They’ll usually respond with the claim we have no way of knowing for sure there isn’t fraud. A silly argument certainly (when the resources of the DOJ can’t find it in years of searching, it’s pretty sure it’s not there), but it’s an argument they believe, which is the important part. Because there could be fraud, we have to respond to the threat the same as if we knew it was rampant. Any risk at all must be avoided, even if doing so creates victims who didn’t cause the problem. Ever notice how conservatives seem utterly unconcerned that legitimate voters will be disenfranchised? They claim it won’t happen but even when confronted with proof it is happening, they don’t care. That’s because disenfranchisement is an acceptable cost for eliminating all risk.

I don’t suggest everyone who supports photo ID is thinking this way, but listen to photo ID supporters. With some of them, you’ll hear this thinking.

When I mentioned Iraq above, what I actually had in mind was Ron Suskind’s book, “The One Percent Doctrine”. Suskind wrote about how Dick Cheney thought a 1% chance of a country being a threat justified invading it:

“Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It’s not about ‘our analysis,’ as Cheney said. It’s about ‘our response.’ … Justified or not, fact-based or not, ‘our response’ is what matters. As to ‘evidence,’ the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn’t apply.”

Was there a chance Iraq was working with Al Qaida and developing WMDs? Forgetting that we now know it wasn’t, given the evidence at the time, both what the Bush administration presented to the public (the supporting evidence) and what it held back (the contradictory evidence), could we have said there was a chance the administration’s charges were true? Sure. Not a good chance, but a chance. That, in this mindset that all risk must be eliminated, justified the invasion.

We see this at work now in the drive to attack Iran. We don’t know for sure Iran won’t use its atomic bomb if it develops one. The odds seem incredibly puny, given that they haven’t actually built a bomb yet, they haven’t said they intend to, they would have a tiny fraction of what we have and even merely a fraction of what Israel likely has, and they haven’t shown any suicidal tendencies to make us think deterrence wouldn’t work like it’s worked with every other nuclear-armed nation. Still, from a conservative mindset, puny isn’t zero, and that tiny risk is why all the arguments about why attacking Iran is a bad idea are getting nowhere. Until the risk is zero, opposing arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Will conservatives like being characterized this way? I doubt it. They would presumably argue that the risks are a lot higher, or that the ramifications of the risks coming to pass are so awful that they’re justified in tolerating no risk. I assume they won’t like the implication that they don’t care about the lives of Iranians or Iraqis, the dignity of innocent people subjected to strip searches, or the voting rights of poor people, and maybe they aren’t conscious they even hold that attitude. But there they are. I suspect this thinking is behind the perpetual drive to make life miserable for welfare recipients — any humiliation or deprivation is OK to prevent any small amount of fraud; and maybe behind their opposition to contraception — whatever medical conditions are being treated, there might be someone using them to have sex without consequences.

Perhaps a reason left and right talk past each other so much isn’t just the fact-free world modern conservatives inhabit. After all, we can have trouble accepting something sometimes too despite a preponderance of evidence (though I have to think the awareness that we do this is some sort of advantage). It could be that when we rate risk, we give higher consideration to the victims of the measures taken to avoid a risk, like the odds of a person stopped for a traffic offense having contraband that will be found only through a strip search is much lower than the odds the stripped person will be humiliated or even traumatized by the experience.

In other words, we rate the effect on the victims highly, while conservatives rate the risk highly. We know about 10% of eligible voters don’t have a photo ID, but what if enough people are able to get photo IDs that we get down to a small number of people who would be disenfranchised. Would we change our minds about how terrible the disenfranchisement would be? If the photo ID amendment would disenfranchise 100,000 Minnesotans instead of the estimated 200,000 who now don’t have photo IDs, would we still oppose it? How about just a thousand? A hundred? I know the answer immediately for myself: voter fraud is so rare and photo ID so unlikely to stop any, that even 100 disenfranchised people is an intolerable violation of voting rights.

Likewise my opposition to invading Iraq wasn’t based on knowing the evidence was cherrypicked — I didn’t. I just demanded a high level of certainty before inflicting war on somebody, and the publicly available evidence didn’t give me that.

To a liberal, the certainty there will be victims of the measures taken to avoid the risk demands a high level of certainty about the risk, whereas conservative thinking is that the possibility a risk could have bad consequences makes the odds of that happening immaterial. I don’t know how we talk them out of those policy positions, but maybe knowing where they are gives us a place to start, and a way to understand what cognitive processes are occurring when their arguments work.

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