In medical terms erring on the side of caution would be a possibly unnecessary biopsy taken in an effort to increase the level of certainty in the diagnosis. "Is that irregular calcification on the mammogram an early cancer? I don't think so, but it's suspicious. We need to take a biopsy to be sure." Would you want that from your doctor, or would you prefer a pat on the back and "see you next year?" Sometimes the biopsy is negative - no cancer. Is that unnecessary surgery?
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes in the NY Times today on national security and the threat of WMD terrorism, as we approach the seventh anniversary of 9-11. He notes that Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union, where MAD could keep the worst impulses on both sides in check. "Though Al Qaeda cannot destroy the world, it will destroy what it can, when it can."
That is why it was so disconcerting to hear Barack Obama, on the ABC program “Nightline” in June, commend the virtues of the federal response to the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993. “We were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial,” he said. “They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.”
And why is that "no better example" of the inadequacy of arresting and trying terrorists? Because the WTC came down 8 years later in another attack. So erring on the side of caution might, in that situation, have meant not only searching for perps but more aggressively anticipating the desire and the reach of Al Qaeda to do further harm to America, and acting pre-emptively.
Let's move forward eight years. 9-11 happens, just under 3000 lose their lives, and two monstrous skyscrapers are turned to ash, twisted metal and a huge hole in the ground. A nuclear device could certainly have made things a lot worse, and President Bush knew it. Mr. Goldberg knows it. But - and here's the disturbing thing - he's not sure that Mr. Obama knows it.
Ah, pre-emption. That was the reason for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Now, in hindsight with no WMD located following our arrival in Iraq, it's easy to point the finger at President Bush for the folly of going after Saddam Hussein - and Mr. Goldberg, almost on cue, does.
But the lack of WMD was not known prior to the invasion despite inspections. It could easily be argued, again recalling the two toppled towers and the possiblity of even greater destruction and death, that Mr. Bush was simply acting on what were the common intelligence understandings at the time. Could he take the time to be Goldilocks, looking for the just right porridge before settling in for a snack? He didn't think so; his job was to make sure Americans were safe. Further, the ISG report linked above found that once sanctions were lifted Saddam had intentions to reconstitute weapons programs. If you don't depose Saddam and the sanctions get lifted, then what? Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, isn't it?
It's a dangerous world. Sometimes the lesion is so suspicious it requires a wide-margin biopsy in order to err on the side of caution. In the case of threat of nuclear weapons, our leaders might need a bit more latitude in assessing and then neutralizing perceived threats.