by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 7, 2002
The term common sense is a misnomer; few things are rarer. As Tennyson wrote in his elegy for the Duke of Wellington: ``Rich in saving common-sense/ . . . as the greatest only are . . ."
Among one group, common sense is especially lacking: intellectuals. Their love of theory makes them particularly susceptible to ignoring what is right in front of their noses. No intellectual would have ever pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. Rather he would have developed an elaborate theory to explain why it appeared the emperor had no clothes, even though he was fully dressed.
The anti-empiricism of intellectuals renders them vulnerable to almost any form of nonsense. ``If a man is bright enough, it is possible to convince him of almost anything; the problem is if he is not quite so bright," says a party apparatchnik in a play about life in Eastern Europe under Communism.
The lack of common sense of intellectuals was brought home by an interview with Meretz MK Naomi Chazan after last week’s suicide bombing in Rishon LeTzion. Chazon is one of the best-educated members of the Knesset – the daughter of a former president of the Hebrew University – as well as one of the most articulate. She correctly observed that Operation Defensive Shield had not succeeded in stopping terrorist attacks on Israelis – something no one had ever claimed that it would.
In place of the ``failed" policy of entering West Bank centers of terrorist activities and interdicting terrorists before they were on their way into Israel, Chazon offered her own solution. Israeli troops should withdraw immediately from all areas beyond the Green Line followed by the immediate resumption of negotiations towards a political solution.
Of course. Why didn’t we think of that? In recent weeks, the IDF has succeeded in arresting or eliminating numerous suicide bombers on their way to carrying out terrorist attacks and has continued to uncover new bomb factories. Though we are far from eliminating the terrorist threat, an inverse relationship has clearly been established between the degree of IDF involvement in a particular area and the likelihood of a suicide attack emanating from that place.
Given these successes, it is obvious that the IDF should immediately cease all actions in West Bank cities and towns, so that would be suicide bombers and those who send them can go about their activities unimpeded and without fear. If it is clear that the determination to carry out terrorist attacks remains very high, the logical response is to completely cease all preventive activity.
To be fair, Chazon did not exactly say that nothing should be done to make life more difficult for those who have vowed to kill as many Israelis as possible. She continues to call for the stationing of international peacekeepers in the West Bank – the same panacea she has been pushing for years. What, one wonders, is the model for the peacekeeping force she has in mind? The UNIFIL peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon who watched passively as Hizbullah lay a trap for three IDF soldiers, took movies of the whole kidnapping, and did nothing to save the IDF soldiers, even though the UN had certified Israel’s full withdrawal from Lebanon?
And from what countries does she imagine that these peacekeepers will be drawn? Which of the countries that has shown so much solicitude for Jewish victims of terrorist attacks and understanding of the Israeli need to respond vigorously would send peacemakers? We will certainly have many to choose from?
And what will the peacemakers do? One thing they will surely not do is act aggressively to uproot the terrorist infrastructure. UN peacemakers typically do everything possible to avoid any confrontation that might turn combative. The only thing their presence would do is to restrict Israel’s ability to respond to terrorist actions directed at its citizens. Which is why Yasir Arafat has been the most consistent champion of an international peacekeeping force.
THE costs of such uncommon sense are not confined to Israel. The use of profiling to prevent air hijackings, or the lack thereof, is an example of a total flight from reality on the part of the American government. The fact is that certain types of people are far more likely to be hijackers than others. Topping that list are Moslems and those of Middle Eastern descent.
Using various profiling techniques developed since Yasir Arafat first introduced the world to air piracy, El Al has developed a reputation for being the most secure airline in the world, despite also being the one most subject to terrorist attack. One would think, then, that the United States would have rushed to learn all that it could from Israel after September 11 and to employ a similar system at American airports.
No, the fear of racial profiling was too great. Instead the United States instituted a system of across-the-board rules (whose only advantage was that it did not entail paying a high enough wage to attract airport security personnel capable of thinking.) Great-grandmothers with a pair of tweezers in their medicine bag are subjected to as great scrutiny as young Arabs with boxcutters. As a result, air travel has a become a nightmare, with preflight check-ins of up to three hours. By making air travel so unpleasant and inconvenient, the government has insured that the airline industry is unlikely to emerge from its slump any time in the near future.
Political correctness – i.e., the fear of being accused of racial profiling -- has resulted in a system of airport security that maximizes inconvenience with little attendant gain in security. The FBI’s failure to process the request of its Minneapolis office for court authorization to search the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected ``twentieth hijacker" appears to have been based on the same desire to avoid the taint of racial profiling. Senior agents in Washington D.C. were afraid of singling out Moslem militants for a higher level of scrutiny.
There is a possibility that the September 11 plot might have been uncovered in time had the American government applied the same mental processes that any rational human being relies on all the time. Is there anyone who if he saw a young Arab, wearing a thick jacket on a hot day in Jerusalem coming his way would not give him a wide berth and rush to find a policeman or soldier? Would that nearly automatic response entail a certain degree of racial profiling? You bet. Would it therefore be wrong? Only if one is eager to be a terrorist victim.
EVERY failure to employ a modicum of common sense does not result in catastrophe as dramatic as September 11. Some such failures, however, may prove as devastating over the long run. An example was last week’s decision by the Third Circuit of Appeals striking down a law that conditioned public libraries’ receipt the of federal funding to connect to the Internet on the installation of filtering devices to protect minors from access to objectionable material.
The starting point for analysis here is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes common sense observation that the right to free speech does not include a right to shout fire in a crowded theater. The Torah emphasizes that everything that we view leaves an imprint on our neshamos. While not employing the language of Chazal, Congress made similar findings, buttressed by a wealth of scientific evidence, about the damaging effects on minors of material widely available on the Internet.
The Third Circuit panel found that all currently existing screening technology blocks some material that is unobjectionable and fails to block some material that is objectionable. The problem of underblocking should little concern us. Our inability to develop a vaccine that prevents a deadly infectious disease in 100% of children would not keep us from administering a vaccine that was 99% effective.
And the impact of overblocking on First Amendment interests is negligible. Given the virtually unlimited size of the potential audience for material available on the Internet, the loss of patrons of American public libraries represents an infinitesimal percentage of the potential audience. And anyone seeking that material has a large number of other means to access it other than the local public library.
Against this very slight limitation on the potential audience for certain material must be placed the government’s interest in ensuring that its funds are not used to turn public libraries into traps for minors, in which they have free access to spiritually devastating material in a form guaranteed to have the most lasting possible impact. Instead of the neighborhood library serving as a place for parents to send their children for intellectual growth and exploration, the court’s decision effectively guarantees that they will become places for children to evade the restrictions that their parents place on them at home.
What the court needed was a little more Holmesian common sense.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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