I have a bad habit of categorizing behaviors I don’t understand–behaviors that I just cannot make sense of–as insane. Nuts. Wacko.

I have to remind myself that many of the positions and decisions that I find incomprehensible aren’t really evidence of mental illness, and that the mere fact that they seem devoid of any sensible basis (and–like the anti-vaccine hysteria– often seem likely to personally endanger the person holding them) is hardly justification for my dismissal as too “looney” to merit efforts at serious debate. Shame on me.

But then I run across something like this. 

Talking Points Memo is a reputable, credible source of political information–one that I visit frequently. As this year draws to a close, the editor, Josh Marshall, posted an essay he titled “Looking Back on the Dumb.” It included things like the effort by Rudy Guliani’s son to run for Governor of New York, despite the fact his entire government experience is apparently limited to an internship. But then, Marshall’s recitation included the following:

Tom Cotton was somehow not joking: It was a while ago, but Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-AK) Saturday Night Live script-esque warning to President Biden this summer about the Beijing Olympics still lives in my head rent-free. In June, Cotton sent Biden a letter demanding the President should stop Americans from participating in the 2022 Olympics unless China promised it wouldn’t … steal U.S. athlete’s DNA. “In 2022, thousands of world-class athletes will gather to compete in China,” the letter read. “Their DNA will present an irresistible target for the CCP … thus, we should expect that the Chinese government will attempt to collect genetic samples of Olympians at the Games, perhaps disguised as testing for illegal drugs or COVID-19.” He also somehow concluded that the Chinese government was going to use said harvested DNA to create an army of super soldiers.

Okay, it wasn’t April 1st, but surely, I thought, this had to be tongue-in-cheek. Tom Cotton is a  dangerous rightwing ideologue, but he’s a United States Senator, for heaven’s sake! Surely, a Google search would explain the joke…


The accusation was covered at the time in a number of publications. My favorite was Esquire’s “Tom Cotton Is a Few Reindeer Short of Santa’s Sleigh,” by the always acerbic Charles Pierce.

The shebeen has been keeping a weather eye on Senator Tom Cotton (R), the bobble-throated slapstick from the state of Arkansas, ever since he enlivened his first term by writing a letter to the leadership of Iran telling its members not to assume that any action taken by the President of the United States is in any way permanent. This nugget of larval Trumpism marked Cotton as a potentially dangerous autocrat. What I was not prepared for was the prospect that Cotton is also perhaps three tiny reindeer short of Santa’s sleigh.

I discovered that when reports first emerged about Cotton’s DNA concerns, Twitter had had a field day–with more than one tweet showing Cotton with a tin foil hat, and others comparing him to Marjorie Taylor Green. (Given the wealth of reporting and Twitter activity at the time, I really don’t know how I missed this…)

The Hill also reported on Cotton’s “theory.”

Cotton, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailed several of his concerns, including China’s “invasive” surveillance system. He said members of the American delegation should expect their rooms to be bugged and their electronic devices to be hacked by Chinese authorities.

He also warned about the possibility the Chinese government could try to obtain DNA samples from athletes.

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] also considers DNA collection a vital intelligence-gathering objective,” Cotton wrote.

“The CCP has reportedly conducted tests to develop biologically-enhanced soldiers and intends to use DNA data to catapult Chinese biotechnology companies to global market dominance,” the letter states.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been under the impression that there are a lot of people in China, and all of them presumably have DNA…I’m missing something.

Tom Cotton is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. And he’s convinced that (only American??) DNA can be harvested and somehow used to create super-soldiers.

I’m rethinking my effort to stop categorizing people as lunatics…


Two Sides of the Issue

The question of DNA testing is evidently coming before the Supreme Court this year. The issue is whether taking DNA from someone who has not been convicted of a crime is a violation of that person’s constitutional right to privacy, to bodily integrity.

You would think that a committed civil libertarian would be opposed to this practice, and perhaps if I knew more about the various situations in which the DNA is collected, and the arguments against its use, I would be. But I am very conflicted.

Unlike fingerprints, which are notoriously unreliable, DNA samples analyzed correctly are accurate. Because they are accurate, they prove innocence as well as guilt–DNA evidence has exonerated literally hundreds of people serving time for crimes they did not commit. It has saved countless others the trauma and expense of trials.

Furthermore, the procedures used to collect DNA are not particularly invasive. Typically, a quick swab of the inside of one’s cheek is all that is required–no more time-consuming than rolling fingers in ink and placing them on a surface capable of accepting the transfer, and barely more intrusive.

That said, there’s a legitimate concern that information from DNA and other identity markers can be abused. An effort to collect DNA from the citizenry at large would constitute serious overreach; it would tempt unethical officials to misuse the information, and identity thieves to steal it.

But what about routinely taking DNA samples from people who are arrested? The argument is that a national DNA bank would allow authorities to solve crimes like rape much more quickly, arguably preventing perpetrators from committing additional crimes before getting caught.

The 4th Amendment was crafted long before modern technology; we have to look to its purpose to determine how it should apply to these modern scientific marvels at our disposal. If taking someone’s DNA is a “search,” what is the probable cause, the legal justification, for that search? Can an arrest for some minor infraction provide that justification? Probably not.

I welcome comments and lessons from readers who know more about this issue than I do, because I see both sides of the argument. The positive results of expanded testing would seem to outweigh the negatives, but–especially in Constitutional law–the ends cannot justify otherwise forbidden means.

There are some very good lawyers who comment on this blog from time to time. I need your help now! What am I missing?