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TGIF: The Open Society and Its Worst Enemies


Last week’s bloody events in Paris demonstrate yet again that a noninterventionist foreign policy, far from being a luxury, is an urgent necessity — literally a matter of life and death. A government that repeatedly wages wars of aggression — the most extreme form of extremism — endangers the society it ostensibly protects by gratuitously making enemies, some of whom will seek revenge against those who tolerate, finance, and symbolize that government and its policies. (On the specific connection between the Paris attacks and wars of aggression, see my “Understanding the Paris Violence.”)

Obviously, the police in more or less open societies — “but rather less than more” — cannot fully prevent the kind of violence that occurred at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery Hyper Cacher. Some or all of the killers, who were known to authorities, reportedly spent time in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State — organizations, let us recall, that were not in those places or did not exist before George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and started bombing other Muslim societies in his “war on terror.” But travel abroad is not necessary to carry out horrendous attacks. The Internet provides all the information a would-be killer could want to pull off a mass atrocity. “Lone wolf” operations executed by “self-radicalized” individuals are by nature virtually undetectable, even with a battalion of spies and suborned informants or sophisticated eavesdropping regimes. As journalist Patrick Cockburn writes,

Plots and conspiracies, orchestrated from abroad or home grown, conducted by well-trained jihadis or by angry young men with kitchen knives, pose threats too numerous and diverse for them all to be prevented.

If even a full-blown police state could not prevent all such plots, what chance does a society with a vestige of regard for civil liberties have? But that doesn’t stop governments from trying, usually with full public support. The price is diminished liberty as the authorities adopt increasingly aggressive methods. Further, authorities’ will always be tempted to manufacture incidents to justify their heightened alerts, intrusions, and extravagant  budgets.

That is why it is imperative for societies wishing to remain more or less open to not let their rulers make enemies by conducting a militarist foreign policy. It really is either-or. As Richard Cobden taught a century and a half ago, security is served by nonintervention and free trade.

This gives the lie to the claim of the war party, the neoconservatives, and the so-called liberal interventionists that making war on the Muslim world is necessary to protect “our way of life.” On the contrary, such a policy threatens our way of life, not to mention our lives. Americans should have learned that lesson on Sept. 11, 2001. The French should have learned it on Jan. 7, 2015, if not long before. Contrary to what many people want to believe, history did not begin on those dates. Those who contend that Islamist violence in Europe or America amounts to an ex post justification for Western militarism are playing a dangerous game.

It’s self-serving and disingenuous for the rulers of NATO countries to blame so-called “terrorism” on Islamic fanaticism. (The quotation marks indicate my reluctance to use a political term rigged so as never to apply to the U.S. government’s conduct.) They may say their war is not with Islam itself, only with the “extremists,” but that claim conflicts with the larger colonial and postcolonial context. They routinely leave the impression that the problem is indeed with Islam itself (not to mention Arabs and Persians).

One need not dismiss religion as a relevant social factor to understand that the Arab and Muslim grievances against the West are mainly political and socioeconomic. Chris Hedges makes this point in “A Message from the Dispossessed,” in which he quotes Mohaam Abak, “a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench … during my 2001 visit to La Cité des 4,000” in France:

You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day? We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.

Abak’s complaint (similar to Amedy Coulibaly’s in France last week) is not that Americans are infidels, but that their rulers kill or, in the case of the Palestinians, underwrite the killing of people who have done them no wrong. By focusing on religion, the politicians authorizing the drones, bombs, and torture programs need not confront the fact that they have created the condition that now has Americans and other Westerners shaking in their shoes over sleeper cells and “domestic terrorism.”

It really does come down to a stark choice between full freedom and empire. This is not just about what we call civil liberties. To the extent that the state consumes resources (passing them along to the military-intelligence-industrial complex), we have fewer opportunities to create prosperity through peaceful exchange. The interventionist state impinges on all realms of life. Chalmers Johnson was right:

A nation can be one or the other, a democracy or an imperialist, but it can’t be both. If it sticks to imperialism, it will, like the old Roman Republic, on which so much of our system was modeled, lose its democracy to a domestic dictatorship.

The ruling elite and its court intellectuals solemnly speak of the need to balance liberty and security. Then they insult our intelligence by calling for a “public discussion” of where the line should be drawn. But they don’t want a real public discussion. The ruling elite will decide, notwithstanding its showy gestures to “the people.”

But even this concedes too much, because there is no balance to be struck and therefore nothing to discuss. As libertarian philosopher Roderick Long wrote,

What we want is not to be attacked or coercively interfered with — by anyone, be they our own government, other nations’ governments, or private actors. Would you call that freedom? or would you call it security?

You can’t trade off freedom against security because they’re exactly the same thing.

Politicians cynically exploit the public’s understandable fear of violence, and the media stenographers, ever eager to please and preserve their access to official sources, will help them, dropping even the facade of the hardboiled skepticism they erect on other occasions (such as when they discuss Edward Snowden). The power elite’s public appeal for courage in the face of danger in reality translates as, “We will keep you safe if you trust us and don’t ask too many questions.”

So to whom do the people direct their anger — their rulers, who created these enemies, or “the terrorists” (that is, the Muslims)? You know the answer, and so do the perpetrators. The purpose of “terrorism” by marginalized groups is always the reaction and polarization it provokes. To quote Cockburn again,

If bin Laden had been hiding in the attic of the White House giving instructions to those in the rest of the building he could not have devised a cocktail of measures more likely to aid his cause.

Let us finally understand who created this danger (however exaggerated), and let us understand the choice that confronts us. We can have a truly open society or we can have a militarist foreign policy.

What we can’t have is both.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.