Snowden: Hero

Six in 10 Americans … say Snowden’s actions harmed U.S. security, increasing 11 percentage points from July. … Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe disclosures have harmed national security. … More than half of poll respondents — 52 percent — say he should be charged with a crime. … And 55 percent say he was wrong to expose the NSA’s intelligence-gathering efforts. … Most poll respondents think the NSA’s surveillance program intrudes on some Americans’ privacy rights — 68 percent say this — while 54 percent see intrusions on their own privacy, 49 percent count foreign governments as victims and 48 percent say this of foreign citizens. Among those who say surveillance programs intrude on their privacy rights or those of other Americans, a clear majority say such actions are unjustified. (more)

Though several legislative efforts are underway to curb the NSA’s surveillance powers, the wholesale move by private companies to expand the use of encryption technology may prove to be the most tangible outcome of months of revelations based on documents that Snowden provided to The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. In another major shift, the companies also are explicitly building defenses against U.S. government surveillance programs in addition to combating hackers, criminals or foreign intelligence services. (more)

The most limited estimates say that only 1% of the files that Snowden downloaded have been released publicly so far. At the other end of the spectrum, we may only have seen .25% of the files get released. The worst secrets may yet come forward in time. (more)

Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights. Yeah the NSA lied, went beyond its authority, and hurt us and others. But, we say, the guy who exposed that should be punished for making us look bad. Even though he acted alone, seems personally beyond reproach, suffered substantially and gained little, carefully minimized incidental harm, and showed great competence and self-control in the process.

Geez. I gotta say that Edward Snowden seems one of the best candidates for a classic hero that I’ve seen in a long time. Six years ago I wrote:

In a park near my home is a plaque that reads:

We honor all those who fought for our community.

There is probably a similar plaque near you. I would be more proud to live in a community with a plaque that read:

We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.

The Snowden story isn’t over, and maybe it will all look very different later. But for now, he sure looks like someone who such a plaque would rightly honor. Edward, my hat is way way off to you sir.

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  • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

    I was completely surprised by this post. My model of Robin Hanson would see people in the libertarian cluster around him liking Snowden, and want to be contrarian against them. As I got to the end of this post, I was expecting a sudden turn from “Snowden has all the clasic traits of a hero” to “this shows heroes aren’t actually a good thing.” But wait, no, this is a completely sincere pro-Snowden post.

    (To be clear: I’m pro-Snowden too.)

    • gjm

      My reaction was pretty much exactly the same as yours, though the route by which I got there wasn’t quite the same as yours (indicating a slightly different mental model of Robin).

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I think on foreign policy Hanson figures there’s enough jingoism that he doesn’t need to go meta-contrarian on libertarians.

  • adrianratnapala

    Hip-hip hurrah! Hanson’s not a robot (yet).

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’m pretty sure that robots will someday write posts like this …

      • Doug

        I think it’s extremely unlikely that Ems who agree with the below sentiment will be economically competitive compared to other candidate minds: “We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.”

  • IMASBA

    “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

    I’m not an American but I do have to point out that it’s not like the American public ever got something approaching a fair debate on this in most of their media and especially not from their politicians. It’s mind-boggling how in the US the snooping of the NSA is portrayed as the last line of defense against the forces of Satan ascending from hell and beginning the apocalyps. In Germany politicians and the media have been much more critical of the spying. Still there’s definitely a cultural component: Germans have memories of the Gestapo and Stasi, so it’s no surprised the Germans are royally pissed at the NSA and the American politicians protecting them, in the US (and to some extent Britain) people don’t care as much, as evidenced by the fact that Americans didn’t really protest anything as long as the spy agencies promised to only violate the rights of foreigners, you couldn’t pass a law like that in most of continental Europe in peacetime.

    • adrianratnapala

      All foreign intelligence agencies violate the privacy rights foreigners. Thats what intelligence *is*. This was tolerated in the past: the CIA might as well spy on Soviet individuals; if they stopped, the KGB wouldn’t stop bugging and blackmailing Americans. And in the end, only a few individuals were effected.

      However when networks of mostly friendly powers run mass surveillance on each-others civilians and then share data — then perhaps we need new norms.

  • IMASBA

    So I applaud anyone writing a book with Snowden as the hero, I’m glad there sometimes are things I can fully agree on with Robin.

  • arch1

    “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”
    This actually seems plausible to me, but I wonder whether you are overstating the extent to which the public’s reaction to the Snowden affair supports this thesis.
    Could it be that many who think Snowden’s actions honorable, or even heroic, *also* believe them illegal and deserving of legal consequences? Such people would be betraying their stronger attachment not to U.S. dominance, but to rule of law, in this situation.
    Does existing data shed any light on this?

    • Joe

      Yes! Civil disobedience is still disobedience. You can still go to jail. That increases, not decreases, the virtue of the act. If the law always favoured the virtuous, virtue would be pretty hard to sign– er, demonstrate.
      This reminds me of the “debate” after 9/11 about torture. Conservatives (inc. I think Justice Scalia) were criticized for suggesting that in a Jack Bauer type scenario of a ticking dirty bomb in Manhattan, torture could be justified since it does actually work in cases where the victim actually knows the information (where the bomb is). Many critics tried to argue that torture is never the best option even pragmatically. I.e. they bought into the frame.
      But my thinking was that in such a scenario, it wouldn’t *matter* what the “rules” were: it would be done. And if it worked, it would likely be pardoned, but even if the perpetrator knew he’d be punished, the necessity could outweigh the punishment. And that cost is exactly what restricts violent/transgressive measures to extraordinary cases. “Special warrants” are never special enough.

      • IMASBA

        “But my thinking was that in such a scenario, it wouldn’t *matter* what the “rules” were: it would be done. And if it worked, it would likely be pardoned”

        And that’s the way it should be. Special permissions should only be given in retrospect to deter abuse.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        In a “ticking time bomb scenario” (which never actually seems to occur), someone should torture the terrorist. And then go to jail for committing torture. If other people are willing to give their lives for their country, Mr. CIA should be willing to do time. And if you’re not willing to do time, the situation probably isn’t so serious as to demand torture.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, they should definitely be willing to risk jail time. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a pardon if it turns out there really was a ticking time bomb, but the decision to pardon should be made afterwards so the agent knows there’s no guarantee they’ll get a pardon.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        If it’s expected that they’ll get a pardon on finding the bomb, that is something like a guarantee. And an implicit guarantee is like a de facto modification of the law. I think even then they should serve their time.

      • IMASBA

        You’re assuming they actually know for sure that there is a bomb and that the person they’re torturing knows something about it. Most of the time at least one of those will not be certain so they are taking a substantial risk.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Only dazed utilitarians would blithely suggest (as both of you do) that a torturer ought to be pardoned.

        (I quite enjoyed 24, but it’s had a disastrous effect on public morality.)

    • adrianratnapala

      I think reasonable people might think this, but they would be wrong. As much as I wish him luck, it would be nice to see Snowden caught and then successfully launch a 1st Amendment defense.

      My argument would be as follows: Classification of state secrets can be justified it must protect particular secrets (say the names of agents) and not simply hide government misbehaviour. But Snowden can well claim that he has only leaked the latter kind of secret, and discussion of government misbehaviour — with evidence — is the best imaginable example of protected free speech.

      It’s true he must have signed some kind of secrecy agreement — but at worst that opens him up only to civil penalties, not jail.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        As much as I wish him luck, it would be nice to see Snowden caught and then successfully launch a 1st Amendment defense. My argument would be as follows:

        You don’t really believe this argument has the slightest chance to prevail, do you?

  • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

    I think the natural intuitive reaction is mostly about “betrayal”. Snowden was a trusted insider, on “our team”. He only had the power he did, because he was trusted. A trusted insider deliberately betraying the cause and providing ammunition to our enemies, is among the most dangerous possible actions that a human in a tribe could do.

    You’re trying to make a kind of whistleblower exception to betrayal, but it requires a lot of evidence to overturn betrayal intuition. And this case isn’t like Enron, where the elites were screwing the rest of us for personal selfish gain. Instead, the NSA seems to be filled with honorable people that also thought they were doing their best for “our team” — whether they were right or wrong is a much more fuzzy concept. (Whereas Snowden’s betrayal is obvious and clear and not disputed.)

    • IMASBA

      “And this case isn’t like Enron, where the elites were screwing the rest of us for personal selfish gain. Instead, the NSA seems to be filled with honorable people”

      Yes, because nothing helps you catch terrorists like wiretapping the German chancellor, conducting industrial espionage against European corporations, deliberately ignoring demands from even your own hawkish secret court, lying to congress and doing hiding operations from the president!

      • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

        You missed the point, and you’re confusing whether we approve of the NSA’s actions, with the personal motivations of the NSA personnel. The point is that they believed they were acting for the good of America. The NSA’s motivations remained loyal to “our team”.

        It’s about loyalty and betrayal, not about whether this was intellectually right or wrong.

      • IMASBA

        “The point is that they believed they were acting for the good of America. The NSA’s motivations remained loyal to “our team”.”

        Even when they spied on their lovers, even when they ingored the FISA court’s orders, even when they DID spy on American citizens against the law and even when they secretly conducted operations so sensitive that (by their own admission) they would cause serious foreign relations problems if exposed? Btw, what stops the NSA from conducting industrial espionage for their favorite corporations, against other American corporations, environmental groups, unions, etc…?

        That doesn’t sound like a team playing a fair match, that sounds like a cheater who doesn’t care if the rest of the world burns…

      • Chris Hibbert

        There are lots of people who do things that they believe are the right thing that we need to disagree with and possibly censure. There are quite a few historical incidents (I don’t believe I have to cite them) in which the global community made that clear.

        I agree that most of the employees of the NSA (and other parts of the national security apparatus) think that what they’re doing is justified by the current situation, and either they believe this in spite of recognizing that it’s illegal, or they think the situation vitiates the laws.

        Snowden (and this is generally the role of whistleblowers) disagreed about the correctness of their actions and beliefs and was willing to risk his reputation and safety to make his disagreement public. The fact that they believed in their correctness is irrelevant and a poor defense.

        In your original response, you were right to point out that many people would have trouble seeing past their “loyalty” intuition. That doesn’t make it right. I think in this case, the NSA overstepped its moral and legal bounds, and I celebrate Snowden for his courage and wilingness to brave the consequences to inform us all of what was going on.

    • Doug

      I think the widespread support for the NSA has more to do with partisan politics. Democrats traditionally make up the bulk of civil libertarians. Not saying that small-government republicans and libertarians don’t oppose this kind of stuff, just that there numbers aren’t large enough to shift national polls. Unlike rank-and-file democrats.

      But since the emergence of the red-blue “Cold Civil War” in the US, defending partisan icons has become paramount to even ideology. Obama is a highly important symbol to the left, for many reasons (much more so than for example Hilary Clinton or Harry Reid). Defending his reputation is very important. To admit the moral corruption of the NSA would be to admit some very negative things about Obama. Worse so these things go directly against the image that he presented in his election campaigns, making him look like a hypocrite.

      My sense is if Snowden happened under President McCain we’d see much higher disapproval for the NSA. But as it stands many of the people who naturally oppose it, can’t bring themselves around to it. Once you start talking about Obama, Orwellian surveillance and government conspiracies in the same sentence you start veering dangerously close to what sounds like Birther militia nonsense.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I agree. I like the exposure of more information, but it still required a significant breach of trust. Organizations can’t function if such betrayals are not punished. He could qualify as a “hero” (even if one only counted his effects on his own community), but the rule-utilitarian in me bristles.

      • IMASBA

        Whistleblowers violate the rules of one organization but in doing so expose that one organization’s breaking of the rules of the parent organization: society. Many jurisdictions have special rules for whistleblowers, of course not many whistleblowers will agree to stand for trial when the previous whistleblower was left to rot in a deep, dark hole for 3 years…

      • IMASBA

        I mean is it really any different than telling your CEO that your team manager is stealing office supplies?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        As mentioned, there are typically special rules to go above the normal chain of command. Here the CEO equivalent (Obama) was aware and approved of policies. If the NSA were breaking the law, it presumably would be less of a violation for Snowden to reveal it. I’m not sure that’s the case though. One can also consider the public to be the ultimate authority who needs to be alerted, but Robin just provided evidence they’re upset about Snowden’s actions.

      • IMASBA

        “Here the CEO equivalent (Obama) was aware and approved of policies.”

        Apparently he wasn’t aware of all of them. In addition the NSA is also supposed to get oversight from congress and the FISA court. We now know the NSA has repeatedly lied to congress and ignored FISA rulings.

        “If the NSA were breaking the law, it presumably would be less of a violation for Snowden to reveal it. I’m not sure that’s the case though.”

        If you’re not sure about that you should read more European newspapers…

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Fair enough on much of that.

        I occasionally read American lawyers discussing the programs, but I wouldn’t expect most European papers to have as much grasp of American law.

      • IMASBA

        “but I wouldn’t expect most European papers to have as much grasp of American law.”

        Many of the pieces are written by Americans, including members of congress and you don’t have to be a legal scholar to know that the NSA probably shouldn’t be lying to congress or ignoring FISA rulings. Anyway, I don’t think an intelligence agency should ever be pitied, they are ruthless organizations that know perfectly well how to organize their own PR and defend themselves. When they overstep their bounds they need to be kicked down hard and then be decapitated, otherwise bad things will happen, that’s what history teaches us.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        It has nothing to do with pity.

      • IMASBA

        Maybe “pity” is not the right word, use “concern” if you will. Intelligence agencies are so powerful (at least in the US, just look at their combined budget) they’ll still be around even if 80% of the public and a lot of major corporations oppose them. Even if you agree with 100% everything the intelligence agency does it is still your duty to vote against them and be critical of them because the scales are so much tipped in their favor. They don’t need your support to do what they do, they need your opposition to not do more than they’re supposed to. Even if public and corporate opposition were to reign in intelligence agencies, by say, slashing their budget in half, that still shouldn’t have to compromise a single real anti-terrorism operation because their is so much wiretapping of politicians, industrial espionage and mass data gathering that can be scrapped before real anti-terrorism operations have to suffer a single penny.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I’m not thinking in “Who? Whom?” terms. I’m thinking about how Snowden was granted trust and betrayed that trust. There are extenuating circumstances that could justify that and I’m considering to what extent that would apply.

        I’m also not sure we should treat undesirable intelligence activities as “marginal” ones that will be scaled back first if they are reined in. I think of it more in terms of techniques, rules, programs and so on. They grab a bunch of data in a net, some are potential threats others are not. Reining in will mean giving up entire nets (which we likely want to do, because the sheer quantity is somewhat overwhelming).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        There are extenuating circumstances that could justify that and I’m considering to what extent that would apply.

        When is it permissible for a rule utilitarian to break a rule in favor of his personal utility calculation?

        Ultimately, I don’t think one can avoid the question of whether the U.S. intelligence establishment is fundamentally benign or malignant (or, of course, neither).

        (For those like Robin, who tacitly answer “neither,” Snowden shouldn’t be an easy question.)

      • adrianratnapala

        Organisations in this situation are typically allowed to punish by firing the individual, and perhaps even suing him for damages. But not by putting him in jail.

    • Christian Kleineidam

      The NSA violates US laws. They swore a oath to protect the constitution. That also straight betrayal. Snowden also believes he’s doing the best or the US.

  • arch1

    Thanks Robin, I like your improved plaque a *lot* more than the original.
    I think I’d like somewhat more a plaque that said “We honor those who oppose our community where it is wrong,” because it
    -doesn’t emphasize conflict as much
    -recognizes that a community can be right on some topics and wrong on others (and that it’s generally the wrong *views* that are being opposed, not the community per se)
    -doesn’t distinguish present from past

  • DavidRHenderson

    Good on ya, Robin.

  • VV

    Nice.

  • efalken

    Snowden released so much information it’s really hard to have an informed opinion, especially if you don’t care to do the research. Further, even if he revealed an evil (benefit), there’s the precedent of breaking privacy rights that will have adverse consequences: more costs must be incurred to assure privacy going forward. Lastly, a lot of the crimes he revealed are based on slippery-slope thinking, which is speculative and often overblown.

    • IMASBA

      “Further, even if he revealed an evil (benefit), there’s the precedent of breaking privacy rights that will have adverse consequences: more costs must be incurred to assure privacy going forward.”

      Could you rephrase that sentence? It reads as if you’re saying that assuring privacy becomes more expensive once you know you’re being spied on, as if violations of your privacy aren’t real as long as you don’t know about it.

      • efalken

        I wasn’t going there, though I can see I was ambiguous.

        If you hire someone, they sign a confidentiality agreement that prohibits them from saying anything about information they are about to see, and they (Snowden) subsequently break that agreement and win Time’s ‘Man of the Year’, that will increase paranoia.

        I was in litigation where my adversary had unlimited access to my home hard drives, gmail, yahoo mail, bank records, etc., prior to making a specific complaint about a violation of a confidentiality agreement. My privacy was violated (let someone with bad faith have access to 10 years of your hard drive and email) and no one cared because it was a civil matter, though it cost me quite a lot, so I’m no fan of unrestricted search because post hoc discovery has a certitude of finding damaging information, legal or reputational.

        Given Snowden, every large collective (government, corporation) now needs to increase their background checks and such to be more sure they won’t have their hard drives dumped onto The Cloud. That fixed cost is a dead-weight loss.

      • IMASBA

        “My privacy was violated (let someone with bad faith have access to 10 years of your hard drive and email)”

        Was it the NSA? Sorry, just couldn’t resist asking that (especially since it turns out NSA personnel actually did abuse the NSA’s tools to spy on (ex)lovers).

        “Given Snowden, every large collective (government, corporation) now needs to increase their background checks and such to be more sure they won’t have their hard drives dumped onto The Cloud.”

        Or just stick to the law, they could try that, they expect ordinary citizens to do it so how hard can it be for “the best of the best” and “the masters of the universe”? I mean it’s not like people blow the whistle for fun, their lives usually get ruined and they wouldn’t even get sympathy if they just leaked stuff without there being anything that violates the law among that stuff…

      • efalken

        Unfortunately it wasn’t the government because as it was a hedge fund suing a former employee, no one gave a shit. For example, the judge said at one point in response to my claim of my inability to work under the allegations: ‘why don’t you just golf!’ You see, it’s a joke when there’s not a constituency. If a random guy is getting screwed, who cares?

        What’s the group in Snowden’s case? Government whistleblowers? I like that! I’m skeptical of government, and generally find regulators to be ineffectual at best, usually counterproductive. Yet, breaking laws has costs, and Snowden’s electronic theft means there’s going to be an even greater bureaucracy behind our management, why healthcare.gov needs half a billion when some smart kids could do it for one thousandth of the price.

      • Concerned Citizen

        I think of one easy and cheap way for “every large collective” to avoid having their illegal / immoral activities publicly exposed.

      • Christian Kleineidam

        Snowden didn’t dump hard drives into the cloud. He could have created real damaged if he wanted to do that.

        Companies should practice good informational security and not lose their millions of customers credit card data like target did independent of what Snowden did.

        There are a variety of ways to lose data. The CCC uses as informal measure of E-Government the amount of data about citizens that a government loses. There are a lot of people who want data and aren’t as nice as Snowden and put all data online.

  • wm13

    Yeah, well, if Snowden and Kim Philby are your heroes, you are a pretty standard issue American academic.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      He didn’t say Kim Philby is a hero.

      • wm13

        They both fought for a cause “nobler” than patriotism, and they both ended up in Moscow, which is evidently the best home for the kind of people Prof. Hansen, and most American academics, admire.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Philby passed information to the Soviet Union. Snowden gave it to western media. Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism” could well describe Philby, less so for Snowden.

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  • Alexander Stanislav

    I appreciated this post for highlighting a concrete benefit to what Snowden did rather than an abstract benefit which is what I usually see: e.g. “He revealed an injustice!”.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Robin elevates privacy rights to deontology. Where is the cost-benefit analysis? (Where is the call for a prediction market for relevant data?) Undertaking such an analysis—and relying on expert opinion for its facts—is, according to Robin, hypocritical. Once we agree the exposures have some beneficial consequences, we are apparently bound to conclude that Snowden acted rightly. We need not even consider adverse consequences. In place of their analysis, we get a straw man: Snowden should be punished for “making us look bad.”

    Robin’s posting demonstrates what easy prey he is for idealism—when it follows a libertarian formula. In this instance, I happen to agree with his conclusion; but one expects more than ideologically appealing conclusions.

  • CARO NESS

    The issue, surely, is not so much whether Snowden did the right thing or not, but whether this kind of surveillance is commonplace and whether there is any way this kind of invasion of privacy can be justified, if it is true….

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    I am reminded of an ingroup/outgroup proverb I picked up somewhere:

    ‘When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us.”‘

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  • Michael Wengler

    “My country right or wrong.” Worth understanding. Probably worth understanding the forces that cause some people such as yourself (and myself) to disagree with its sense.

    Being powerful is more important than being fair. Who cares if we are fair if we hold sway over only a small community in a rural area of Wisconsin?

    And finally, what Snowden revealed has the confusing aspect that it initially sounds much worse than it sounds upon analysis. It initially sounds like NSA tapped all our phones and hacked all our laptops. On analysis it looks more like NSA recorded all our phone bills and sniffed all the internet traffic that went by publicly. So we preserve our initial emotional dudgeon even as the facts might be thought to calm it some.

    And finally, the NSA does follow a process for determining whether these things are legal or not. Realistically, what NSA did is/was legal, but might not be popular if known to be legal. This makes it a form of civil disobedience on Snowden’s part, an activity with a strong and noble tradition in the United States, where we built our government on the theory that governments tend to get carried away. But it isn’t the same as “whistleblowing,” and so we should understand that whistleblower protections were not available to Snowden.

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  • http://www.schaeffercox.com/dear-sensible-people-of-a-candid-world/ 16179006

    Stanley Milgram showed that most people are not moral, in any deep sense of the term. Their morality is a superficial consequence of the fact that they possess mirror neurons, and have been operant conditioned by evolutionary pressures to have a certain base-level of concern for the suffering of others. However, if it takes any effort to oppose the suffering of others (even unnecessary and destructive suffering), most people won’t lift a finger to offer any help. Moreover, they won’t even state their agreement (much less support) with the moral side of the argument.

    And “voting for freedom”? Nope. Most people are simply too stupid and uneducated to do that. The Libertarian Party has been on the ballot since 1971, with a platform that almost perfectly offers the precise solution that American needs most: a reduction of state power.

    But when it comes time to “decide” whether to support freedom or “free stuff” (stolen from other people), a decision isn’t ever even made. Just a general slouching toward “free stuff,” with shaky rationalizations made to stupid people who dare question their vote. You’ll very quickly notice that if the person who is on the receiving end of those shaky rationalizations is highly-educated and therefore highly-libertarian, the people run away from his counter-arguments. They don’t want to find out that they’re wrong, and have been acting immorally.

    So they perform the intellectual equivalent of a toddler putting their hands over their ears and screaming la-la-la-la.

    See no evil, hear no evil, think no evil = mindlessly act as evil desires. Again, Stanley Milgram wrote the masterpiece on this subject. It’s called “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.”