Tuesday’s New York Times posted a chilling article, “How Do You Stop a Future Terrorist When the Only Evidence Is a Thought?”
If you haven’t read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’ve probably still know the name he created for what the New York Times seems to seriously consider, thoughtcrime. It has a Wikipedia page that describes it:
A thoughtcrime is an occurrence or instance of controversial or socially unacceptable thoughts…
The term was popularized in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, wherein thoughtcrime is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects.
I take for granted the idea of a government trying to control or police people’s thoughts as a step toward tyranny not worth experimenting with.
In the Times’s style, the article portrays someone where arresting the person would have made sense. Of course, if policies only worked the way you intended and everyone shared your intentions, life and government would be easy. People have different values and interests and unintended results happen. In this case, the unintended consequences of a government being able to punish someone for their unobservable thoughts seems so obviously a route to unchecked power, they seem incomparably greater than the intended consequences. Are you willing to risk the freedom of 300 million people for the possibility of some safety?
More relevant questions
First, the Times’s question takes too much for granted, calling a thought evidence. Maybe future technologies will change things, but for now, thoughts aren’t evidence.
From the article:
“It’s very easy retrospectively, with hindsight, to say that law enforcement, or government, should have known about someone’s intent. But obviously there’s a big difference between motivation—someone being radicalized—and then going out and actually acting on that,” said Richard Walton, who led the counterterrorism unit for the London Metropolitan Police during the 2012 Olympics. “At any one time, in any country, there will be many hundreds, if not several thousand suspects, that fit this profile.”
People don’t passively get imprisoned or watch it happen to others. They react. When they get imprisoned for something they didn’t do they react, often angrily.
Some other questions the article didn’t ask:
- How do you avoid creating future terrorists by imprisoning people who didn’t do anything?
- How do you avoid impinging on the rights of people thinking about future crimes who wouldn’t actually commit them?
- Is it a crime to think about doing something illegal?
- How do you create Due Process around something with no tangible evidence?
- How do you prove someone was thinking something? How can you override someone saying, “that’s not what I was thinking?”
The article quotes a government agent saying
“These people are known to us,” he said. “I want to be able to take preventive action.”
Well, of course you do. But you may be wrong and you’re only looking from your perspective. And even if you’re right, and the person thinking of committing a crime would commit it, which we could never know, but say we put a future killer in prison, a law allowing you this action would likely allow any agent to imprison anyone without evidence.
I can’t believe the Times published so one-sided and thoughtless an article.
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