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Terrorism and prostitution:

From a long and interesting article in today's New York Times Magazine:

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

I see Kerry's point: Terrorists, unlike Nazi Germany or the USSR, can't be entirely defeated, because there'll always be the possibility that some more springing up. We can end the war on some particular terrorists by killing them all or getting them to stop, but we can't end the war on terrorism generally that way. The best we can hope for is that there'll be a lot fewer terrorist attacks. That's certainly an important point, and it's worth keeping in mind.

But what remarkable analogies Kerry started with: prostitution and illegal gambling. The way law enforcement has dealt with prostitution and illegal gambling is by occasionally trying to shut down the most visible and obvious instances, tolerating what is likely millions of violations of the law per year, de jure legalizing many sorts of gambling, and de jure legalizing one sort of prostitution in Nevada, and de facto legalizing many sorts of prostitution almost everywhere; as best I can tell, "escort services" are very rarely prosecuted, to the point that they are listed in the Yellow Pages.

These are examples of practical surrender, or at least a cease-fire punctuated by occasional but largely half-hearted and ineffectual sorties. It's true that illegal gambling and prostitution aren't "threatening the fabric of [American] life," but that's because they never threatened it that much in the first place. One can live in a nation with millions of acts of prostitution or illegal gambling per year or per day. There are good reasons for simply calling off those wars altogether. Surely the strategy for dealing with terrorism must be very different, in nearly every conceivable way, from the strategy for dealing with prostitution or illegal gambling. (Maybe if Kerry had simply compared terrorism to organized crime, the analogy might have been a bit closer. But even there, it would be pretty distant, and in any event "organized crime" seemed in his quote to be a way of characterizing certain kinds of prostitution or illegal gambling offenses — he didn't even refer to the more harmful forms of organized crime.)

I realize that quotes in newspaper articles (yes, even in the New York Times) can be taken out of context. Still, this was a pretty long and self-contained quote, which suggests that Kerry was indeed making this analogy, and making it deliberately. And it strikes me as a singularly inapt analogy to make, an analogy that ought to make one question its user's underlying thinking about the problem.

An analogy about analogies:

Here's a thought experiment related to the Kerry quote below. Let's say that in response to a sharp increase in the number of rapes, or of racist anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence, a President John Kerry had declared War on Rape / War on Racism / War on Anti-Semitism (a somewhat more metaphorical war than the War on Terrorism, but still close enough).

Let's also say that Governor George W. Bush, who was challenging President Kerry in the presidential election wanted to argue that this is a different sort of war, one in which we can't expect total victory. He certainly wasn't arguing that nothing should be done about racism, anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence. He had his own proposals, though ones that Kerry's supporters thought weren't tough enough, and were otherwise misguided. But he wanted to point out that we should be realistic about this: We shouldn't talk the rhetoric of total victory, where we had to realize that some background level of rape, anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence was inevitable. And let's say that this is how he made this point:

We have to get back to the place we were, where [rapists / Klansmen / anti-Semitic attackers] are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.

The letter of this argument is quite correct: Indeed, even the best strategy could at best just reduce the incidence of rape, anti-black violence, and anti-Semitic violence to a level that, while regrettable, is in some sense tolerable.

But would we be happy with Governor Bush's use of the analogy to prostitution or illegal gambling (for more details, see below)? Or would we think that, though the letter is accurate, the use of such an analogy seems inconsistent with the spirit that we're looking for in someone who can effectively fight the very serious evils that need to be fought?

Possible Explanation for Kerry's Analogy:

In two posts below (see here and here), Eugene questions John Kerry's underlying thinking about the war on terror based on a somewhat odd analogy Kerry used in a recent New York Times interview. Here is the key quote from the Times story:

When . . . Kerry [was asked] what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

Eugene considers whether this comparison may reveal Kerry to be a bit soft on terrorism; of all the crimes to pick, Kerry happens to compare terrorism to illegal gambling and other crimes that are generally considered low priorities for law enforcement.

  Eugene may be on to something, but there is another, more charitable, explanation for Kerry's partciular choice of words. Kerry's first big job after law school was as the First Assistant District Attorney (the #2 prosecutor) with the Middlesex County (Massachusetts) DA's Office. According to this Boston Globe article, Kerry overhauled the office in part by focusing on the threat of organized crime:

With a $3.8 million infusion of federal funds he helped obtain, Kerry nearly tripled the staff . . . . He launched initiatives that were innovative at the time: special units to prosecute white-collar and organized crime . . . and a system for fast-tracking priority cases to trial. He also directed the investigation that led to the first conviction of Somerville's Howie Winter, one of the state's notorious gangsters.

According to this article, Howie Winter was notorious for running an illegal gambling empire:

Among the top cases on which Kerry worked was the prosecution of Howie Winter, an organized crime leader who ran gambling rackets in the Boston area and western Massachusetts. Winter was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

While Kerry's choice of analogies appears a bit strange at first, it seems plausible that he was simply relying on his experience setting priorities for the Middlesex County DA's Office back in the 1970s. Kerry prosecuted illegal gambling cases, and presumably had to defend his focus on such cases against critics who claimed that there was no point in prosecuting them.

  Of course, this doesn't mean that Kerry is right to see the war on terror as similar to his prior battles against organized crime and illegal gambling. But I think this history may shed some light on why Kerry chose the specific examples he did.

  UPDATE: Check out this CNN.com story about how the Bush campaign is planning to use the quote in campaign advertisements.
More on Kerry, terrorism, and prostitution: I appreciate Orin's post about Kerry's experience as a lawyer fighting organized crime; and it might indeed shed light on why Kerry used the odd analogy that I discussed in this post.

Nonetheless, even if Kerry was hearkening back to his experience prosecuting organized crime — including organized crime that ran illegal gambling, and perhaps even (by analogy) organized crime that ran prostitution — I'm still puzzled why he'd use prostitution and illegal gambling as an analogy, rather than murder, arson, extortion enforced by violence, and so on.

After all, when prosecutors crack down on a crime organization that controls prostitution, it's not just that they won't eliminate prostitution altogether: They're highly unlikely to even substantially diminish it. They may destroy the organized crime-run prostitution rings, but this will still leave a vast amount of prostitution out there, perhaps even involving the very same prostitutes.

In fact, cracking down on the crime organization might even sometimes increase the amount of prostitution, if for instance the organization was violently blocking new competition. In any case, while organized crime control of prostitution might be largely though not completely supressible (perhaps most effectively by legalizing prostitution), prostitution itself does not seem to be even largely suppressible, given current, past, and likely future political realities. Certainly law enforcement doesn't treat it as something that can be vastly reduced, or that is even worth vastly reducing.

I don't know to what extent this is true of illegal gambling, but I suspect that something similar operates there as well. One can certainly fight, with considerable success, organized crime control of gambling. But I suspect that most prosecutors' offices don't expect that they can vastly reduce the amount of illegal gambling as such, and don't try very hard to do it. And again, the main strategy for reducing illegal gambling seems to be broadening legal gambling.

So I continue to be troubled by Kerry's choice of analogies in his quote, which as you recall is this:

When . . . Kerry [was asked] what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
It seems to me that our attitudes towards what is a not deeply threatening level of terrorism (which, I agree, is more than zero) should be vastly different from our attitudes towards what would be a tolerable level of prostitution or illegal gambling. And the difference is so great that I wonder whether the person who makes such an analogy is missing something big.

And more broadly, my thought experiment challenge in the Analogy about Analogies post still stands:

Let's say that in response to a sharp increase in the number of rapes, or of racist anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence, a President John Kerry had declared War on Rape / War on Racism / War on Anti-Semitism (a somewhat more metaphorical war than the War on Terrorism, but still close enough).

Let's also say that Governor George W. Bush, who was challenging President Kerry in the presidential election wanted to argue that this is a different sort of war, one in which we can't expect total victory. He certainly wasn't arguing that nothing should be done about racism, anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence. He had his own proposals, though ones that Kerry's supporters thought weren't tough enough, and were otherwise misguided. But he wanted to point out that we should be realistic about this: We shouldn't talk the rhetoric of total victory, where we had to realize that some background level of rape, anti-black violence, or anti-Semitic violence was inevitable. And let's say that this is how he made this point:

We have to get back to the place we were, where [rapists / Klansmen / anti-Semitic attackers] are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.
The letter of this argument is quite correct: Indeed, even the best strategy could at best just reduce the incidence of rape, anti-black violence, and anti-Semitic violence to a level that, while regrettable, is in some sense tolerable.

But would we be happy with Governor Bush's use of the analogy to prostitution or illegal gambling (for more details, see below)? Or would we think that, though the letter is accurate, the use of such an analogy seems inconsistent with the spirit that we're looking for in someone who can effectively fight the very serious evils that need to be fought?
Let's even stipulate that Governor Bush had earlier been a prosecutor who fought crime organizations that had controlled illegal gambling and, let's say, prostitution. Would that really challenge our likely reaction to his statement?