On Monday the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, explained several U.S. diplomatic posts would remain closed for up to a week out of an “abundance of caution” prompted by a potential terrorist attack.
As the Tsarnaev brothers fled, flinging explosives from their stolen car, residents of Boston and many close-in suburbs were told to stay inside behind locked doors. The unprecedented, rather amazing, shut-down of a huge urban area was justified by an abundance of caution emerging from a proven murderous capacity and a continued proximate capability demonstrated just hours before.
As Hurricane Sandy churned north, Mayor Bloomberg announced mandatory evacuations and scheduled suspension of the transit system as warranted by an abundance of caution. Soon enough — and well before landfall — he was warning of a clear and present danger.
Congressional leaders who have been briefed on the intelligence “stream” are unified in endorsing the abundance of caution undertaken in recent days. It is reassuring that our feuding representatives can find anything on which to agree. Especially when such vociferous political adversaries make common-cause, I am inclined to defer to their assessment of the current context. The evidence has, apparently, pointed to a fast-approaching threat.
But I will raise an issue of strategy or perhaps policy beyond the current circumstance: With Hurricane Sandy the threat velocity was known and New York was absolutely in the target zone. In the case of Boston, Watertown, and near-by, bombing, murder and mayhem were undeniably clear and present.
What seems to be the situation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and AQ-Core is a communications intercept involving a vague instruction to do something big. I will admit this strikes me — so early in the post-Snowden period — as a suspicious choice by Messrs. Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. (Or… in our Kafkaesque counterterrorism context is the intercept report a false-flag to distract AQ et al from the actual tradecraft involved?) When or where or precisely who might carry out the attack is not known. So… we evacuate or shelter-in-place across roughly the same expansive space as the Umayyad Caliphate.
But… taking the reported intercept on face value, AQAP has a significant capacity in Yemen. Given demonstrated AQAP capabilities, the shuttering of our Sana’a facility and evacuation of most personnel is probably a prudent measure. (The government of Yemen disagrees and claims to have foiled a local plot.)
We have seen that other AQ franchises across North Africa, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere also have existing capacity. I don’t have the resources to assess threat capabilities in each nation where our official outpost has closed its doors. No doubt if the decision-criterion is an “abundance of caution” a sufficient argument can be made for each.
Last week I was given a boilerplate contract to sign. It included a clause that could have been used by the other party to claim 125 percent of any revenue I generated from a set of long-time clients. This was not the original intent of the clause, but was a possible application. Such action by the other party is very unlikely, but out of an abundance of caution I arranged for an amendment to the agreement.
This is an example of the origins of the phrase. In Latin it is “ex abundanti cautela”. In Roman law the tendency to explicitly engage and counter very unlikely possibilities is prompted by an an abundance of caution. Such action is certainly prudent. It is also — at least in the context of ancient Roman law — tedious, pedantic, and often so ridiculous as to become absurd.
Today the phrase is usually unveiled with a kind of magisterial flourish that suggests no reasonable person could possibly contest the good sense of behaving with an abundance of caution.
Is over-abundance possible?
New York could — out of an abundance of caution — announce voluntary evacuations every time one of those individual tracks in the hurricane cone-of-probability crosses between Atlantic City and the Hamptons.
The Boston area shelter-in-place order was lifted about 6:15 PM. After nearly eleven hours behind locked doors, caution seemed a bit over-ripe. The surviving suspect was located in the boat about a half-hour later. What would have been our assessment of the Boston shut-down if the second suspect had not been located that evening?
Most of our risks are no-notice. But with hurricanes — and to a lesser extent tornadoes and blizzards — there is an emerging ability to take action to avert harm. The reason we spend billions on the intelligence community and offer the first fruits of liberty on the altar of security is to give us similar warning for evil intention.
What we have learned from weather-related warning is that preventive action not followed by a confirming event increases the tendency of the population to take unnecessary risks next time. Over-zealous — or unlucky — efforts to prevent harm can perversely cause greater harm.
While we are certainly dealing with probabilities, this is not — yet — a matter of contending mathematical models. We are left with concepts… judgments… words. Always fallible, but fully worth our careful thought.
An abundance of caution is an ancient legal principle supportive of taking preventive action. So is the common law’s “bad tendency” which was succeeded by “clear and present danger” which has evolved into justifying preventive action by the State only where the threat of violence is both imminent and likely.
Is the threat proximate in time and space and probable? We will still disagree, but these are the right questions to ask. These are the right questions to answer in justifying dramatic preventive or preemptive action.