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!”
We get this all the time…usually from teachers unions…they used it against Anne Tolley and are yet to deploy it against Hekia Parata…only a matter of time though.
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,tellsMen’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 theLos 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.”