McCullagh's Law: When politicians invoke the do-this-or-Americans-will-die argument

Republicans claim a proposal to add privacy safeguards to wiretapping legislation will put Americans "at risk." This is an example of McCullagh's Law, which predicts when politicians will threaten that not enacting legislation will harm or kill some

Republicans are so eager to sink a wiretapping bill that includes some privacy safeguards that they're invoking what amounts to a do-this-or-Americans-will-die argument.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., said after an Intelligence Committee vote on the Restore Act on Wednesday that the bill "puts our nation and troops at risk." A few minutes earlier, responding to a Judiciary Committee vote, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the bill protects "terrorists, spies and other enemies."

Politicians of both major parties wield this as the ultimate political threat. Its invocation typically predicts that if a certain piece of legislation is passed (or not passed) Americans will die. Variations may warn that children will die or troops will die. Any version is difficult for the target to combat.

This leads me to propose McCullagh's Law of Politics:

As the certainty that legislation violates the U.S. Constitution increases, so does the probability of predictions that severe harm or death will come to Americans if the proposal is not swiftly enacted.

McCullagh's Law describes a promise of political violence. It goes like this: "If you, my esteemed political adversary, are insufficiently wise as to heed my advice, I will direct my staff and members of my political apparatus to unearth examples of dead {Americans|women|children|troops} so I can later accuse you of responsibility for their deaths."

Rep. Lamar Smith, who only invoked some of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse

This threat is perpetual, meaning it may last the duration of the targeted politicians' career. Adversarial television advertisements may appear during the targeted politician's next campaign for re-election. They may display images of corpses if available, or stock photography if they're not, and blame the target for their deaths. It's a more serious example of the soft-on-terror accusation, which is behind the Democrats' unseemly haste in August to approve a wiretapping bill that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believed "does violence to the Constitution of the United States."

A variant of McCullagh's Law was demonstrated, as I wrote about in August, by National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. He agreed that "Americans are going to die" because of disclosure of President Bush's secret and probably unconstitutional surveillance program and the ensuing congressional debate.

While Republicans are more likely to invoke the threat, Democrats are not immune from the temptation. When he was justifying an attempt to expand the War On Some Politically Incorrect Drugs, President Clinton claimed that over "100,000 Americans will die."

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who invoked Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse: Terrorists, drug cartels, kidnappers and child pornographers

One of the better examples of McCullagh's Law in action was former FBI Director Louis Freeh during the encryption wars of the Clinton administration a decade ago. He told Congress that unless backdoors are mandated in encryption products, "the effect will be so profound that I believe law enforcement will be unable to recover."

In 1995, Freeh warned that drug cartels, terrorists and kidnappers would run amok unless programs like PGP were banned. Two years later, the categories of child pornographers, spies and violent gangs had supplanted kidnappers in the FBI's list of horrors: "Uncrackable encryption will allow drug lords, spies, terrorists and even violent gangs to communicate about their crimes and their conspiracies with impunity...A subject in a child pornography case used encryption in transmitting obscene and pornographic images of children over the Internet."

I should point out that McCullagh's Law is not, of course, triggered by all "Americans will die" warnings. This is a logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent (if A then B does not mean that B implies A). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' warning, which as far as I know is accurate, that "more than 10,000 Americans will die of skin cancer" in one year falls into that category.

Paul Wolfowitz, who assured the public that "Americans will die" unless Iraq is invaded

There are probably many examples of McCullagh's Law, but I'll leave you with one more, this time from the Bush administration. It came from Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in October 2002, about half a year before the United States' invasion of Iraq.

Wolfowitz claimed--he was was entirely wrong, we know now--that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be used to kill Americans.

An attack by Saddam Hussein, Wolfowitz predicted, would mean that "tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of Americans will die in some catastrophic attack with a biological weapon, or if we wait long enough, a nuclear weapon." Of course, no such weapons were found in Iraq and at least 3,816 Americans actually have died as a result.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

Find Your Tech Type

Take our tech personality quiz and enter for a chance to win* high-tech specs!