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National Security

Joey King | Sunday, March 22, 2009

In her anti-utopian novel The Giver, Lois Lowry presents a superficially ideal world that is later revealed to be fatally flawed.

One key dialogue occurs when the eponymous Giver describes one of this society’s choices.

“We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”

The 12-year-old protagonist, Jonas, immediately replies, “We shouldn’t have.”

The Giver is surprised that Jonas is so quick to realize this truth: that more was lost than was gained by the trade-off their society elected to make. Unfortunately, many decisions we make as a nation fall into the “shouldn’t have” category – like the state department’s denial of Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan’s entrance into the United States, where he was to teach Islamic ethics in a new, tenured position at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Ramadan is currently teaching at Oxford. Yes, that Oxford. Because he donated $1,336 to a Swiss charity later designated as a terrorist group, the United States didn’t want him teaching here.

We’re big on national security threats in America – sometimes a little too big. I don’t think anyone feels that it was our attitude toward communists in the 1950s that was responsible for bringing us out of the Cold War as capitalists. It makes sense that national security is a top priority, but we need to look at the big picture in terms of cost and benefit.

Even if we assume that Ramadan’s $1,336 bought a tailfin of one of Hamas’ rockets, we have to at least admit the possibility that his perspective could enlighten us as to what exactly is motivating terrorism in the first place. We need to realize that perspectives outside of the Patriot Act have value – even when it comes to fighting security threats.

As a small illustration of the importance of putting human capital high among national priorities, one of the first actions of Hitler’s administration was to remove Jewish university professors from their jobs. Einstein had seen this coming and left for the U.S. just in time. Cal Tech, Princeton and the U.S. reaped the benefits. Germany, not so much.

America’s policy at the time wasn’t much better. J. Robert Oppenheimer headed up the development project for the first nuclear weapon. At the time, Oppenheimer was regarded as a security risk for what were perceived as radically leftward political leanings.

Long story short, the U.S. put its suspicions on hold and let him build the bomb. But after his bomb-making days, the same left-leaning political connections that had been pushed under the rug earlier led Oppenheimer to be considered a security risk (he had also begun warning against a U.S. and Soviet arms race). After refusing to resign, his security clearance was revoked in a public hearing.

Our priorities on national security continue to be too militaristic. We’d rather bar entry, period, than try to learn something, unless of course that something were even more militaristic. Were Ramadan an engineer offering a terrorist-killer-o-matic™ instead of a theologian offering intellectual insight, we’d probably ignore his past transgressions and let him in. But insight is not as immediately understandable as an advantage, so it goes to Oxford.