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Informed, Intelligent, Wrong

Today's Washington Post carries a column by the normally thoughtful Sebastian Mallaby, on the question of the terrorist threat from illegal immigration. Mallaby argues that 1) because the number of non-Latino immigrants coming across the border is small, the threat is similarly small, and that by implication, 2) those proposing national security as a reason to build the border fence are acting in bad faith.

Mallaby tries both to wish away a serious problem, and to defame those who are more adult about the problem through straw men and diversionary arguments.

As a starting point, anyone interested in the threat from Muslim radicals via our southern border should read this four-part series from the San Antonio Express-News, here, here, here, and here.

Of the many infuriating assertions in the immigration debate, perhaps this one takes top prize: that we have to keep illegal immigrants out for the sake of our security. This notion is wrong, not just because undocumented workers are statistically less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes or because they are serenely indifferent to al-Qaeda's teachings. It is wrong because it misses the most basic rule of smart homeland security.

This argument takes the subject of the debate - Muslim radicals slipping across the border - and expands it to all illegals. It then looks like it's shrinking the debate back down by assuming that the two parts of his argument are independent. We're not concerned here about "crimes" in general, but about very specific crimes: terrorist acts designed to kill and maim large numbers of Americans, and to destroy significant parts of our infrastructure. The illegals he's talking about are largely indifferent to the dream of the Caliphate. Those we're talking about think that every step closer to the Rio Grande is a step closer to its restoration.

Smart homeland security starts with the reality that you can't protect everything. ... Even if you doubled spending and then doubled it again, there would be too many targets to protect. Total security is unattainable.

So the name of the game is prioritization. There are two schools of thought as to how this should be done, and neither of them involves clamping down on immigrants. The first school says: Figure out what sort of attack would cause the most damage -- for example, an attack on an urban chemical plant that would unleash deadly gases. The second school says: Figure out which attacks are most likely -- al-Qaeda has demonstrated a fascination with aircraft, so spending $9.16 per passenger on aviation security but only 6 cents for each mass-transit rider (as the federal government was found to do in 2004) may not actually be crazy.

By all means! Let's post special-forces units outside every hospital, school, water tower, office building, check-in counter, and subway station! Of course, to do so, we'd probably have to go ahead and annex Mexico outright for the manpower, and put some immigrants with skills and who can actually read (read: Europeans) on the path to citizenship, both of which Mallaby seems to have problems with.

The distinction between School One (hedge your risk), and School Two (out-guess the universe), is an illuminating but ultimately irrelevant discussion. Neither one explicitly addresses immigration, in the same way that neither explicitly addresses the mechanics of obtaining anti-tank missiles.

At a time when the US is actually paying attention to likely domestic terrorist training camps, and is preventing such prevaricators as Tariq Ramadan from entering the country, both organizers and operatives could be trained on foreign soil and trickled in one or a few at a time to create cells here in the US.

Actually, Mallaby plays the game here three times. First, he paints the grudging nods to security as some sort of medieval, crocodile-filled moat. Second, he downplays the threat from illegals by talking about whichever subset fits his point at the time. Third, ignores the means to which such a porous border may be put to use by our enemies. Fourth, he implies that those of us making these arguments are deliberately lying in order to put up some sort of nativist policy.

If this isn't the sign of massively dysfunctional political debate, nothing is.

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