It takes significant effort to defend freedom against security and patriotism. In the case of elected officials, you need to track individual actions and make it clear which actions you support and which you do not. This requires being in frequent contact with a senator or two, a governor, and a handful of representatives.
What happens when a bureaucratic institution goes awry?
The Department of Homeland Security has started requiring ‘Video Film Declaration’ forms for any imported film.
Who does this move benefit? Is it a valid security measure?
No. For it to be a security measure, there needs to be a threat that it reduces. Organized terrorism isn’t a threat. Oh, sure, there have been a handful of arrests — genuinely innocent people, or victims of agents provocateurs. And a couple of idiots have tried to blow themselves up in ill-thought-out attempts that would barely succeed at suicide, let alone any appreciable level of terrorism.
(As an aside, I wonder whether it would be effective as terrorism to have agents blow themselves up, with little damage to others, making it look like the explosives had been planted in secret. But I doubt such a plot could remain secret for long enough to make that successful.)
What’s the most successful terrorist act since the World Trade Center incident? A lone man in Oslo, deciding, without outside assistance, that certain people needed to die.
What about in the United States, before the Word Trade Center incident? Well, that would be the Oklahoma City bombing, which was also a lone man deciding that others needed to die.
These things are more likely to stop by providing more access to psychiatric care than by censoring material.
Political terrorism has been a lasting threat in certain circumstances. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, and the Irish Republican Army have caused a huge amount of strife. The United States is not seeing anything similar domestically. If we were, I’d have to consider whether censorship might help in those circumstances, but I think it’s likely a bad idea to have the ostensible good guys suppressing truth that only criminals and terrorists can provide.
So, we don’t seem to be getting any security from this loss of freedom. Need we consider any other benefits that censorship might give?
Well, presumably, if there were good arguments in favor of censorship, those who are censoring materials would already be providing them. So I could claim that it is simply unnecessary for me to refute arguments that have not been provided; these are clearly outside the scope of consideration for the Department of Homeland Security. And there’s some merit to that attitude: it’s unlikely that the DHS would optimize censorship for a less spurious goal if they are claiming its purpose is security.
But it’s a better form of argument, if you’re interested in finding truth, to fix your opponent’s arguments for them, and refute what you are left with.
Is there any knowledge that is uncontroversially dangerous, that we would benefit from restricting access to? Some knowledge that harms more than it helps? Or something that merely requires significant caution to handle safely?
Well, yes. Knowledge of how to create an artificial intelligence could be extremely dangerous, if it were exercised in the absence of careful and thorough work on the topic of Friendly AI. Knowledge of how to create an atomic bomb or an airborne ebola could be quite dangerous, especially since the implementation will get easier in time. Any subject about which people are strongly inclined to become severely dogmatic is dangerous, whether it be a political theory or a religion. (And I’ve heard a number of stories about people deconverting from Christianity as a result of having read the Bible. It seems safer, if you’re not stamping out the religion, to allow people to access its holy texts.)
Censorship in science and artificial intelligence would reduce a wide variety of means to attack others, and reducing religiosity would reduce one strong motivation for terrorism. Censorship in these areas is at least controversial, albeit not an obviously good idea. But the DHS is not redacting the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, or banning sales of the Bible.
The DHS is censoring materials that suggest being violent toward anyone in the United States. I can ask whether there is a reason for US citizens to view such materials, but that implies there is by default no right for me to see anything, unless it has been proven safe already.
Are these materials actually dangerous? Well, they’ve been available for years, with very little effect. If we treat the period in which it has been readily practical to distribute videos promoting terrorism and terrorist organizations in the US as a trial period, these videos have incited violence pretty much never.
In the US, you can visit al Jazeera’s English website and see a number of announcements from terrorist groups. Al Jazeera occasionally runs video submitted by terrorist organizations. How many people have resorted to violence due to these? If it had happened, would al Jazeera still be operating?
Obscenity and Immorality
Let’s look at the other provisions in the video declaration form. Inciting treason is already a criminal offense, so there’s not much point worrying about it in this form. Obscene and immoral matter, though, is a different knob of wax.
Obscenity laws are a way of imposing the scruples of the largest or most powerful portion of a society on members of that society who would otherwise be free to do what they want in the privacy of their own home. They typically target sexual material or mannerisms of speech (which is to say, swearing).
What can be covered by immorality and not obscenity, but is not already illegal?
If some activity were universally or near-universally condemned, it would presumably already be illegal. Immorality only has room where the enforcers have a different morality than their society. It is a way to sneak in views that are not sufficiently mainstream to survive a fair vote.
Do you think something is immoral and should be banned? Fine — push a bill through Congress. I’ll happily debate you there. But if you instead put an undefined ‘immoral’ term in a video declaration form, with a strong assumption that anything that ends up being called immoral can’t be imported…well, you’re surrendering the definition of law, and the enforcement of your morality, to unknown, unchecked employees of the Department of Homeland Security.
Regardless of your specific morality, that’s just not a good idea.