Terrorism and prostitution:

From a long and interesting article in today’s New York Times Magazine:

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. “As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

I see Kerry’s point: Terrorists, unlike Nazi Germany or the USSR, can’t be entirely defeated, because there’ll always be the possibility that some more springing up. We can end the war on some particular terrorists by killing them all or getting them to stop, but we can’t end the war on terrorism generally that way. The best we can hope for is that there’ll be a lot fewer terrorist attacks. That’s certainly an important point, and it’s worth keeping in mind.

But what remarkable analogies Kerry started with: prostitution and illegal gambling. The way law enforcement has dealt with prostitution and illegal gambling is by occasionally trying to shut down the most visible and obvious instances, tolerating what is likely millions of violations of the law per year, de jure legalizing many sorts of gambling, and de jure legalizing one sort of prostitution in Nevada, and de facto legalizing many sorts of prostitution almost everywhere; as best I can tell, “escort services” are very rarely prosecuted, to the point that they are listed in the Yellow Pages.

These are examples of practical surrender, or at least a cease-fire punctuated by occasional but largely half-hearted and ineffectual sorties. It’s true that illegal gambling and prostitution aren’t “threatening the fabric of [American] life,” but that’s because they never threatened it that much in the first place. One can live in a nation with millions of acts of prostitution or illegal gambling per year or per day. There are good reasons for simply calling off those wars altogether. Surely the strategy for dealing with terrorism must be very different, in nearly every conceivable way, from the strategy for dealing with prostitution or illegal gambling. (Maybe if Kerry had simply compared terrorism to organized crime, the analogy might have been a bit closer. But even there, it would be pretty distant, and in any event “organized crime” seemed in his quote to be a way of characterizing certain kinds of prostitution or illegal gambling offenses — he didn’t even refer to the more harmful forms of organized crime.)

I realize that quotes in newspaper articles (yes, even in the New York Times) can be taken out of context. Still, this was a pretty long and self-contained quote, which suggests that Kerry was indeed making this analogy, and making it deliberately. And it strikes me as a singularly inapt analogy to make, an analogy that ought to make one question its user’s underlying thinking about the problem.

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