Legislating Against Terror

Frank Lautenberg was the first of many to suggest instituting background checks for gun powder purchases. Source: Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

The quote “first, do no harm,” derived from the Latin phrase primum non nocere, is a leading principle for medical practitioners. The idea is that in some cases, medical intervention may actually do more harm than good. Thus, in these scenarios, it may be best to just leave the patient alone. Although this principle may sound like common sense to most people, it is not that surprising that many politicians refrain from abiding by this principle.

Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member in the Senate, was the first Senator (as far as I know) to start wondering about what the government can do to prevent more events like the Boston Marathon bombing. Lautenberg’s idea: background checks on gunpowder purchases. While some might give Lautenberg credit for trying, those with a basic background in chemistry surely would not. In this day and age, common, everyday materials can be used to create explosions. As J.D. Tuccille points out, even flour can sometimes be used for explosions. Unless Lautenberg plans on instituting background checks on bulk purchases of flour, sugar, and other everyday materials that can be used as explosives, there is not much point to background checks on gunpowder purchases.

Lautenberg is not the only politician trying to institute government policies meant to protect against future bombings. Chuck Grassley from Iowa released a statement in which he pondered, “Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system…  How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?” Grassley’s proposal might make a little more sense if Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev immigrated to America as undercover Islamic extremists. However, this was just not the case. By all accounts, these brothers lived normal lives until they were radicalized right here in America. Sure, Tamerlan did return to Russia where he came into contact with Islamic separatist groups, but it is important to remember that his turn to radicalism began before he made his trip to Russia. In short, it is quite difficult trying to think of how tighter immigration policies would have prevented two normal brothers from turning to Islamic extremism here in America. Moreover, Grassley’s proposal strengthens an “us versus them” mentality that has devastated political and cultural relations between America and much of the Islamic Middle East. America has, and should continue to, welcome immigrants aspiring for a better life. Subjecting immigrants from the Middle East to more security or background checks is not the way for America to improve its image in the Middle East.

Fortunately, neither of these ideas seems to be gaining much traction in Congress. However, even if these proposals did pass, how bad could they possibly be? Sure, they may be ineffective, but will they really do any harm? In my opinion, it is not so much the proposals that are dangerous, but the ideals that are motivating them. Lautenberg, Grassley, and others would like to believe that for every issue, there is government legislation that can solve it. However, the presence of a policy issue does not necessarily mean that a viable policy prescription exists. As a matter of fact, government intervention may sometimes do more harm than good.  Unfortunately, Lautenberg and Grassley do not seem to have the self-restraint to realize that policy prescriptions do not always make a situation better. Sadly, this lack of self-restraint and patience by politicians has led to knee-jerk “solutions” that have devastated America.

Remember how the government responded to faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Invade Iraq, overthrow its government, occupy it for the next decade, and lose thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in the process? While the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq may be the most egregious example of misguided government solutions to various problems, there are other examples of American politicians violating the “first do no harm principle.” Granted, the knee-jerk proposals in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing have not been nearly as harmful as reactionary policies have been in the past. Nevertheless, the misguided ideals motivating these reactions are very much the same. If and when America confronts another challenge, one can only hope that politicians will be able to consider “no solution” as a possible solution.