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Mistaken about Motives


It does no honor to the thousands of innocent victims of the September 11 terrorism attacks to fool ourselves about the motives behind that mass murder and destruction.

The Bush administration says incessantly that the terrorism was an attack on civilization: freedom, prosperity, self-government. Government officials, pundits, and cartoonists insist that the terrorists’ intent is to bring down American society. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “What this war is about is our way of life.” An editorial cartoon shows two terrorists hiding in a cave, one berating the other, “Bring the Americans to their knees, you said. It will split them apart, you said.”

That view may give some people comfort, but it misses the mark by miles. The average American, who has no time for foreign affairs and U.S. foreign policy, might believe this. The officials who engage in this sort of dissembling surely know better. Their reasons for distorting the truth can’t be flattering.

Think about it: No informed person can possibly believe that terrorism, even on the scale of September 11, could threaten the existence of American society. It is too big, too rich, too decentralized, and too resilient — precisely because there is such a large degree of individual freedom. It is unwise to assume that your adversary is insanely out of touch with reality. Better to assume he is rational, in the sense that he has chosen achievable objectives and is selecting means capable of accomplishing them. The latter policy puts one in a far better position to understand and counter an adversary than the former.

We really do not need to be in doubt about what the terrorist operation was intended to accomplish. If Osama bin Laden was really the instigator or mastermind, we can know precisely what he intended. He’s given many interviews to Western journalists. Transcripts are available on the Internet. Never does he say that his motive for a holy war against America is the destruction of capitalism, wealth, freedom, or any other abstraction. He is quite steadfast in his indictment of the United States. In his eyes it is guilty of desecrating holy places in the Arabian peninsula by stationing troops there since the war against Iraq; of harming the Iraqi people by means of an embargo on food and other vital commodities; and of helping to subjugate the Palestinians by financing and provisioning Israel.

Whatever one thinks of those charges, let us have the presence of mind to acknowledge and understand them. Perhaps we might even wonder whether there is anything to them. To do so is not to justify terrorism against innocents. Nothing can justify or excuse that.

But justice never needs to fear the truth. If the terrorist planners did not intend to bring down America, what did they intend? It would be easy to assume that they intended to reverse the three policies mentioned above. Perhaps. But even more plausible is that they simply intended to roll the dice in the Middle East. They don’t like the status quo. So why not shake things up, possibly causing a rearrangement more to their liking? And what better way is there to shake things up than to help precipitate a war?

In other words, it is highly likely that bin Laden wants the United States to unleash its military might in Afghanistan and Iraq. Doing so could upset Pakistan and embolden and win new sympathizers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. Those U.S.-supported dictatorships are despised by many people in the region. The general turmoil could also have severe consequences for Israel. From bin Laden’s perspective, why not roll the dice? What’s to lose?

Is President Bush on the verge of giving bin Laden what he wants? That would be a mistake. The turmoil of war rarely produces positive change. It was war that gave the Bolsheviks a chance to seize power in Russia. It was war that set the stage for Hitler and Pol Pot. A U.S.-launched war in the Middle East may kill some terrorists — perhaps even bin Laden — but that doesn’t mean the full long-term consequences will be to our liking.

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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.