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Freedom Is the Best Insurance against Terrorism


In the wake of the possible sabotage of TWA flight 800 and the bombing at the Olympics, President Clinton did what politicians always do at times like these: he grabbed for more power.

If that has a feeling of dj vu to it, it should. Shortly after the blast at the federal building at Oklahoma City, Clinton asked Congress to pass a so-called counterterrorism bill. Congress obliged, giving the president the power, among other things, to deport aliens with secret evidence in the tradition of the old Star Chamber. But he didn’t get all the power he wanted.

What he especially wanted was expanded authority to wiretap our telephones. Considering that the administration is already increasing wiretaps on Americans by more than 30 percent a year, one shudders to think what it will do with expanded authority.

Clinton failed to get the extra power the first time around because civil-liberties organizations rallied against him. Now, following the plane crash and the bombing, he has another chance. He has milked the incidents to the limit.

“We will continue to do whatever is necessary to give law enforcement the tools they need to find terrorists before they strike and to bring them swiftly to justice when they do,” says Clinton. Whatever is necessary? Really? People used to believe that the end doesn’t justify the means. But isn’t that what Clinton is saying?

Terrorism the deliberate killing or injuring of innocents for political purposes is ghastly. That is not in question. The issue is whether the national government will use terrorism as a pretext for amassing power that is repugnant to the American tradition of individual liberty and limited state power. It might be easy for people to get caught up in the fear and anxiety associated with terrorism and to acquiesce in the administration’s demand for more power. But that would be a betrayal of all that America once stood for and could stand for again. The terrorists would be the winners.

Governments have always accumulated power by keeping the citizens agitated about domestic and foreign enemies, hoping they will permit any outrage in the name of saving them from one set of barbarians or another. In America it was supposed to be different. The American system was based on the idea that the key to civil peace is not power but liberty.

Nothing can absolutely rule out the possibility that someone or some group will engage in wanton violence in a large, open society. But the chances are reduced considerably when two conditions obtain: foreign noninterventionism and domestic laissez-faire.

When the government intervenes in foreign conflicts, it can create fanatical enemies bent on vengeance. And when government intervenes in the domestic economy, it can cause such hardship (for instance, unemployment and bankruptcy) that some who suffer it may turn to violence out of frustration. Harming innocent civilians is not justified by such policies. But that doesn’t change the fact that those policies can create the conditions that put people in desperate situations. The corollary is that in a laissez-faire society, people tend to experience control over their lives, removing the feeling of helplessness that can drive them to violence.

Thus, a free society in which the government abstains from foreign and domestic intervention is the best insurance against terrorism.

Let’s look at some examples. The unconditional support the United States has given Israel as well as America’s direct military or covert intervention in Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere has prompted victims of those actions to extend their hostility to the United States. The results have included the Pan Am 103 and the World Trade Center bombings. In contrast, other nations seem untouched by terrorism Switzerland, for example, a traditionally neutral country.

Some analysts respond that foreign terrorism against America is an ideological phenomenon stemming from the perception of the decadent West as a threat against traditional Muslim society. I am skeptical. A far-off noninterventionist America might be despised by some Muslims. But I don’t believe it would inspire large-scale terrorism. For that, you need concrete offenses, such as American warships’ pounding Lebanon with shells the weight of Volkswagens in the early 1980s or the CIA’s helping the brutal shah regain power in Iran in 1953. I am willing to subject my theory to empirical testing. Let’s end all foreign intervention and see whether the level of terrorism against Americans falls.

On the domestic front, the government has often created hardships with its monetary, spending, and tax policies, which can cause land values and commodity prices to change abruptly. Changes induced by government policies can lead to property foreclosures, business failures, and other hardships that may prompt desperate men to consider violence. Government meddling doesn’t excuse violence, but it can explain it.

The United States thus can best be kept safe by ending treaty commitments, staying out of foreign quarrels, and practicing laissez-faire at home. Intrusive powers would work in the wrong direction. Instead of making Americans safer, those powers threaten them. OFficials may say they will wiretap and spy only with court orders and only against proven criminals. But experience has long demonstrated that the government cannot be trusted to keep its word. It will bend or break the rules because the temptation will always be strong to do so. It will spy on advocates of unpopular causes and fringe religions. It will lie to get warrants. It will ignore the requirement to get a warrant altogether. The restraints intended to protect innocent Americans will count for little or naught. The more authority the government has to spy, the more dangerous it is for us. Government bureaucracy is the devil’s playground. That goes double for so-called law-enforcement agencies.

The recent pattern is disturbing. A few years ago, the Clinton administration mandated that the telephone companies use older, inferior technology simply so it could wiretap freely. The new all-digital, fiber-optic technology makes wiretapping difficult or impossible. Clinton wants to shut down the free market in computer-encryption software simply so the government will have access to everyone’s electronic “papers” and e-mail. He supports government suppression of so-called indecency on the Internet.

The theme in all this is control over people before they have committed a crime. That is the way totalitarian states have always tried to manage their populations. They not only make peaceful activities crimes; they also unleash swarms of secret police to watch for suspicious behavior and to instill fear in the populace. They seek control.

In a free society, no one is interfered with unless he violates someone’s rights or is caught in the process of doing so. Citizens are regarded as innocent of wrongdoing until proven otherwise. Given the direction of things, that principle could be at risk in the United States. For one thing, it was never perfectly established. Using the old doctrine of civil forfeiture, government today seizes property from people not charged with crimes and imposes on the owners the burden of showing that the seizure was improper. The authorities have found a powerful weapon against people engaged in crimes without victims, such as drug offenses. It is attractive to them because the standard of proof they must uphold is much weaker than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and because they can sell the property for cash.

The upshot is that we are not safer when we give government the power to engage in preventive measures. We are less safe. That is as true with terrorism as with other forms of crime. We must not do what people have too often done in the past. We must not let ourselves be stampeded into urging the government to mistreat us in order to save us from some alleged greater evil. That has always been a bad bargain. It is a bad bargain today.

There is no need to give the government massive new powers to intrude on our privacy and liberty. Those powers won’t thwart terrorists bent on destruction, but they will further erode our freedom and power to conduct our lives as we wish. The authorities already have intolerable powers, even as they seek more. We should repeal those powers, not grant new ones. Instead, let’s establish the best insurance against terrorism: domestic and foreign noninterventionism.

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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.