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Self-Inflicted Violence


IN OUR RUSH justice for the perpetrators of the horrors of September 11, we seem to have forgotten another kind of violence that is ready to befall America: the self-inflicted violence of an open-ended, comprehensive, and essentially secret global war conducted by the U.S. government against an enemy so amorphous it apparently cannot be specified in a congressional declaration of war: “Terrorism.”

It will be the ultimate tragedy for the American people if our rational desire for justice — even vengeance — is transmogrified into an undated blank check. The violence that such a thing would inflict on American society would not be of the metaphorical variety. It would be real, and the costs would be incalculable.

Secrecy and open-endedness undermine what the founding generation called “free government.” If, as the theory goes, government in a constitutional republic (erroneously called “democracy”) is the servant — not the master — of the people, they ought to know what it’s up to. The Founders wanted stringent controls on the government’s ability to make war and other foreign policy in part because they understood that such policies would perforce be conducted in plausible secrecy. Under the Constitution, for example, the president is the commander in chief, but only Congress can declare war and appropriate the money to fight it. Also, the Senate must ratify all treaties by a supermajority. The fragmenting of authority was intended to safeguard the people from executive secrecy and flexibility.

Secrecy in domestic policy is not such a problem. If a critic of Social Security charged that it will be insolvent in 15 years, no president could get away with replying, “I possess information showing that to be a false and irresponsible allegation. But that information is classified and it would jeopardize national security were I to divulge it.”

But those words are spoken all the time in foreign affairs. And hardly anyone objects.

The Founders, therefore, recognized the validity of an eternally valid syllogism: Foreign policy requires secrecy. Secrecy undermines limited government. Therefore, the making of foreign policy of a limited government should be strictly limited. No wonder Washington and Jefferson counseled against alliances.

As President Bush says, a war against nebulous terrorism, spread around more than 60 countries, will be fought in many ways. Besides the cruise missiles and bombs let loose from safe distances, there will be secret special operations we may never hear about. Whom will they be launched against? Terrorists, of course. On the basis of what evidence? That’s classified. Trust us. You’ll recall that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s promise of the evidence against Osama bin Laden was never kept. Until the recent “smoking-gun” video surfaced, we were asked to take it on faith that the evidence existed. (Remember the pharmaceutical factory Bill Clinton bombed.)

The financial infrastructure of the terrorist organizations will be disrupted, in part by gaining access to banking information. On the basis of what evidence? That’s classified. Trust us.

The homes of people living in the United States will be searched without their knowledge. On the basis of what evidence? That’s classified. Trust us.

People’s telephones will be tapped and their email read. On the basis of what evidence? That’s classified. Trust us.

Noncitizens will be detained without charge. On the basis of what evidence? That’s classified. Trust us.

Trust us. It has a warm, cozy sound to it — until you remind yourself who is saying it. At a time when many are wondering what makes someone a “good American,” let us keep in mind that there is something distinctly un-American about blindly trusting the government. When the Federalists outlawed criticism of the government with the Sedition Act in 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, in which he said,

Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism — free government is founded in jealousy [that is, distrust]…; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.

It should be obvious that this war on terrorism, as defined by the Bush administration, would dissolve the chains required “to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”

It is disheartening how eager some professed advocates of limited government are to see those chains dissolved in the wake of September 11. Indeed, by some that eagerness is equated with patriotism. Most conservatives have wasted no time in donning the mantle of unquestioning cheerleaders for the Bush administration. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk applaud every move by the president, ignoring the apparent and substantial disagreements between the Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz wings. Limbaugh is not bothered in the least by the secrecy. “I don’t want to know,” he said recently. By the time the anti-terrorism bill was passed by Congress and signed by the president, there was little conservative criticism, though the bill outrageously authorizes secret searches of homes.

If there is dissent from the conservative quarter it consists in wishing the war was wider. The conservatives associated with The Weekly Standard want Bush to overthrow the Iraqi government and launch attacks on Syria and Iran if they do not bow to U.S. dictates.

War and national glory

What is so disturbing in the conservative response are hints of the belief that only in war can a nation achieve glory. The Weekly Standard crowd has long embraced “national greatness” conservatism, which is tantamount to an imperialist war program. Now that a terrorist attack has occurred at home, one gets the impression that conservatives have lost their inhibitions about wanting to see the United States “kick ass.” You can almost hear them say, “It’s about time.” The reaction goes beyond wanting to see justice done for the crimes of September 11. It is as if those events will now permit the United States to get even for all the indignities it has allegedly suffered since the defeat in Vietnam (if not Korea). In this mindset, limits on government are on the backmost burner.

The conservative response, however predictable, is bad enough. More disappointing is that some libertarians have joined the chorus. True, the current U.S. undertaking differs from those of the last 50 years because it was provoked by the inexcusable attack on civilians going about their own business at home. But the resort to bombing as a proper response (initially in the absence of public evidence against the U.S. government’s targets) has been endorsed by more libertarians than might have been expected.

Liberty, government, and war

The fallacy in this is the implicit belief that there will be no significant costs in liberty from a program of war and continuing intervention. Being a little bit interventionist is like being a little bit pregnant. Such a policy is hard to envision. Those who would have the U.S. government overthrow only the Taliban in Afghanistan and wipe out Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization seem to forget that action breeds reaction. What happens when (if?) those missions are accomplished? If the U.S. government withdraws, what will prevent a reconstitution of those forces that resent the American actions? Doesn’t it follow that the U.S. government will have to remain in Afghanistan and administer some kind of colonial or puppet government? Of course, that will leave the occupying U.S. personnel vulnerable to violent resistance. The U.S. government will have to be concerned with the wider region as well, since resentment will emanate from other countries there.

Logic says that short-term measures will not succeed. Conservatives such as Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who favors full-blown American imperialism, are at least consistent. “The problem, in short,” Boot complains, “has not been excessive American assertiveness but rather insufficient assertiveness. The question is whether, having now been attacked, we will act as a great power should.” He wants the U.S. government, with the help of the UN, to remain in Afghanistan and to change the Iraqi government. (See “The Case for American Empire” in The Weekly Standard,http://www.weeklystandard.com/content/public/articles /000/000/000/318qpvmc.asp.)

Boot follows the logic of intervention to its conclusion, but that doesn’t make it good policy. If we value individual liberty, we must limit government power. And if we are to limit government power, we must keep the state from meddling abroad. For despite all the obfuscation and denial, the crimes of September 11 have roots in 50 years of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Comprehending that fact in no way exonerates the criminals, though it might prevent future atrocities.

But, it will be said, we were viciously assaulted on September 11 and that may not be the last of it. Something must be done.

That’s true. But there is no more dangerous time than when one feels one must do something — anything — because “something must be done.”

We rights absolutists are sometimes criticized by the consequentialists for embracing the motto “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Now it is those who endorse the current war who embrace that motto.

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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.