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Freedom Is the Best Insurance against Terrorism

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In the wake of the possible bombing of TWA flight 800 and the bombing at the Olympics, President Clinton is doing what politicians always do at times like these: he’s grabbing for power.

If that has a feeling of deja vu to it, it should. Shortly after the blast at the federal building at Oklahoma City, Clinton asked Congress to pass a so-called counter-terrorism bill, which it soon did. The new law, among others things, permits the government to deport legal aliens with secret evidence.

That wasn’t enough for Clinton. What he especially wants is expanded authority to wiretap our telephone calls. Considering that the administration is already increasing wiretaps on Americans more than 30 percent a year, one shudders to think what it will do with expanded authority.

Clinton failed to get the extra wiretapping power the first time around because civil liberties organizations rallied against it. Now, following the plane crash and the Olympics bombing, he has another chance. He can be counted on to milk 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 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–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 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 liberty, not power.

Nothing can absolutely rule out the possibility that someone or some group could or will engage in wanton violence. And in a large open society, infrequent terrorist acts may succeed. But the chances are reduced considerably when two conditions obtain. First, when the government abstains from foreign intervention, it avoids making fanatical enemies bent on vengeance. For example, the unconditional support the United States has given Israel–as well as America’s direct military participation and covert action in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, and Iraq–has prompted victims of those actions to extend their hostility to the United States. The monstrous bombings of Pan Am 103 and the World Trade Center have their roots in U.S. intervention in the Middle East. In contrast, some nations seem untouched by terrorism–Switzerland, for example, a traditionally neutral country.

Second, when government intervenes in the domestic economy, it can cause such hardship (for instance, unemployment and bankruptcy) that some who suffer may turn to violence out of frustration. Harming innocent civilians is not justified. But that doesn’t change the fact that the conditions that put people in desperate situations can be created by government policies.

Thus a free society in which the government practices a foreign and domestic policy of nonintervention is the best safeguard against terrorism. The United States can be kept safe by ending treaty commitments, staying out of foreign quarrels, and practicing laissez faire at home.

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. The authorities already have intolerable powers, even as they seek more. We should be rolling back those powers and establishing the best insurance against terrorism: domestic and foreign noninterventionism.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of 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.