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Freedom, Security, and the Roots of Terrorism against the United States

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ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, I was in Bratislava, Slovakia, attending the annual meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international association of classical liberals and advocates of the free market, established in 1947 by Friedrich A. Hayek. And like tens of millions of people around the world I was stunned and shocked when I turned on the television in my hotel room in the late afternoon, shortly after 10 o’clock in the morning on the East Coast of the United States. CNN, CNBC, and BBC were broadcasting live coverage of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

I sat there in disbelief as they showed one of the World Trade Towers ablaze after being struck by a commercial airliner, and showed a second airliner approaching and then crashing into the second Tower. The announcers on the TV channels reported that the Pentagon was also hit by a third commercial airliner and that a fourth one was reported down in Pennsylvania. Television cameras zooming in for close-up shots of the burning buildings showed people falling or jumping out of windows from some of the higher floors of the Trade Towers. Then first one and then the other Tower just collapsed in giant balls of smoke. The brother of a friend of mine who owns a store just eight blocks away from the Towers later said that the sky was raining human body parts along with the debris of the buildings. And from Washington, the live camera feeds were recording a massive fire on one side of the Pentagon, and through the smoke it was possible to see that a huge part of the building had been destroyed.

It seemed unreal and I felt that I must have been watching a science-fiction or disaster movie with detailed special effects. But no, this was real. Commercial airliners filled with fuel tanks meant for flights across the continent had been hijacked by terrorists and used as flying torpedoes for mass destruction. And in a matter of minutes thousands of men, women, and children were killed and injured.

That evening I sat around with other Americans and some Europeans attending the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. As we watched CNN continue to broadcast live pictures from New York and Washington on a big-screen television in the background, we tried to make sense of what had happened and why. The human tragedy of the day’s events hung over the conversation, with comments constantly coming back to the loss of life and the hurt that was being experienced by so many people who had relatives or friends working in downtown New York or at the Pentagon. Our conversation repeatedly returned to an attempt to understand what kind of human beings would plan, direct, and act out such crimes.

This, inevitably, brought the conversation to comments on what would or should be done in response to this premeditated mass murder. Emotion is a powerful element in the human being. A very small number of Americans and Europeans called for blood, even innocent blood if it resulted in the death of some of the terrorists and their accomplices in the process. But most of the Europeans and Americans suggested greater caution before military action was undertaken to determine whether it might not set in motion a series of consequences that would lead to even greater disaster. There was a general agreement that there was no clear-cut and simple answer or solution to ensure justice in the face of this terrible tragedy.

When the Mont Pelerin participants left the hotel on Thursday morning to begin their respective journeys home, words had become impossible and we merely bade each other farewell and hoped that a better climate would exist in the world when we all met at next year’s meeting in London, England.

After being stranded in Europe for several days because of the shutdown and delays at U.S. airports, I have found a country filled with the spirit of charitable concern for the victims and family members of the terrorist attacks. A strong emotional pride in standing united as Americans is felt by many across the entire nation. Most feel that they and their country have been brutally violated by what has happened. And virtually everyone wants something to be done to prevent this from ever happening again.

But what exactly should be done, and at what cost?

First, bombing campaigns and use of ground troops in a place like Afghanistan are not likely to produce justice or achieve victory. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Afghanistan has been destroyed already during the last 20 years comprising 10 years of Soviet occupation and another decade of a civil war that brought the Taliban to power in Kabul. Bombings would only reduce the already wretched lives of millions of innocent Afghans.

Any terrorists who have not dispersed since the attacks on September 11 have burrowed deep into mountain caves and bunkers that protected them for years from the firepower of Soviet tanks and helicopter gunships. And American ground forces could easily be drawn into a protracted campaign with success as remote as it was for the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Even limited, precision landings by American Special Forces cannot be counted on for killing or capturing the perpetrators behind the events in the United States.

Furthermore, a military course of action may well end up generating a backlash among Islamic fundamentalists throughout the Middle East and North Africa that would only succeed in producing additional recruits for suicidal terrorist acts in the future. Indeed, one estimate suggests that there already may be 100,000 fundamentalists in that part of the world ready to undertake missions of mass murder if called upon under the right circumstances.

Second, in the emotional anger of the moment few Americans seem willing to ask the deeper and more fundamental question of why it is that America is the constant target for terrorist attacks around the world and now at home. Some commentators and public officials say it is because America stands for capitalism and the free society, which are supposedly anathema to Muslim faith and culture. But the commercial society prevails in Switzerland and Denmark, too. And the secular “decadence” of the open society prevails far more in most parts of Europe than in the United States. Yet those and other countries are not made the target of terrorist attacks, except as they offer targets of Americans working or residing there, as was seen with the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USSCole in the port of Aden in Yemen.

The roots of terrorism

The fact is that America has aroused the anger of these terrorists and others like them who are waiting in the wings because of American political and military intervention around the world. Since the Second World War, the U.S. government has taken it upon itself to serve as the global policeman and social engineer. But being a global policeman requires the U.S. government to decide in each country into which it intervenes who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” In other words, the United States must end up taking sides in the domestic political, ideological, and economic conflicts in these other lands. This inevitably means that some part of the population in each of those countries comes to view the United States as the ally of their domestic opponents and therefore as their enemy. Every foreign intervention undertaken by the U.S. government, therefore, produces a potential underground army of terrorists who now believe that winning their domestic battles requires defeating the foreign interventionist power.

Whether we like it or not, those whom we label as “terrorists” view themselves as “freedom fighters” and “liberators.” And often those whom we now call “aggressors” and “terrorists” are the very same people to whom we gave military and financial assistance in the past. This applies to both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as well as to many in Serbia and Croatia whom we now refer to as “war criminals.” Our foreign interventions have often created the monsters that it is now claimed we must go out and slay.

As free-market economists have long pointed out, once an interventionist path is entered upon, the distortions and disasters generated by one intervention easily become the justification and rationale for new interventions to try to correct the problems caused by the earlier one. Of course, the new interventions only end up creating new distortions and disasters that once more serve to justify another round of interventions.

There is only one way to end this cycle and that is to end the interventions. They must be repealed and abolished. In the arena of foreign policy this means ending American political and military intervention around the world. American armed forces must be brought home and military bases abroad need to be shut down. The U.S. government must stop providing political and financial assistance to governments or political factions in their lands.

We must accept the fact that we cannot make over the world in our own image, if for no other reason than that the vast majority of people want to determine their own destinies and not have choices made for them by others, including the United States. The world is full of agonies and tragedies, war, conflicts, and brutalities and we cannot stop them. In many cases there are simply no answers, given the ideological and philosophical ideas that dominate so much of the world.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. The ideal classical liberal or libertarian solution, it can be argued, would be a neutral secular state over the entire territory now claimed by both groups. This state would be limited to the protection of each individual’s life, liberty, and property under an impartial rule of law.

Another classical liberal or libertarian solution would be plebiscites in each and every village, town, and city in the territory claimed by Israelis and Palestinians, with, say, a majority in each of them determining whether to be politically a part of an Israeli or Palestinian state. And then, after, this political division had been decided upon, any minorities still living in each of these political states would have their individual rights to life, liberty, and property protected under an impartial rule of law with a regime of free trade reigning between the two states and between them and the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of both Israelis and Palestinians reject both of these classical liberal or libertarian solutions, and any others similar to them. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians, in very large numbers, hunger for monopoly control of land and people. And many — including some Israelis as well as Palestinians — wish in their hearts that there was a way to make the members of the other group just go away or disappear.

How, then, can America hope to intervene in such a foreign conflict and avoid arousing the wrath of those it decides not to support? That is how we create our own enemies and future terrorists who will — and have — finally come home to haunt us.

The threat to civil liberties

Third, in the high emotions of the immediate aftermath of this terrible tragedy the cry is now being widely heard for “doing whatever it takes” to guarantee people’s safety and security so as to prevent any similar terrorist act on the territory of the United States. In the process, calls are being made for special exemptions and greater latitudes for the government to interfere in the private affairs of the citizenry in the name of stopping any future terrorist conspiracies. What is too easily forgotten is that it is much easier to give away and lose our individual liberty than it is to get it back once power has been transferred to the political authority. A number of libertarian commentators have correctly drawn attention to the conclusions in Robert Higgs’s book, Crisis and Leviathan, that governments have tended to grow the most during times of national emergencies, and particularly during times of war. And when the emergency has passed, the size and intrusiveness of government may have been reduced, but in the 20th century it never returned to the size or degree of intrusiveness that prevailed before the time of emergency and crisis.

Given the political and ideological currents that prevail in America, any freedoms that we may lose in this present emergency are likely to remain lost to a great degree long after the crisis has past. We need to think and hesitate now, before the evil work has been done and cannot easily be reversed. And precisely because this is an international problem that has no easy solution given the government’s clear though unfortunate intention to follow a foreign interventionist course, as time goes on the political pressure will mount to give up a little bit and then a little bit more of our civil and economic liberties. This has to be resisted right from the start before too many dangerous precedents are set in our new “war against terrorism.”

How should we proceed?

So what is to be done?

I offer the following suggestion. Airports and air traffic control should be completely privatized and deregulated as quickly as possible. Airport security and safety is now the job of government, and it has failed. Shifting a greater part of the responsibility to the federal law-enforcement or military authorities provides no guarantee against future hijackings and terrorist attacks. After all, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole were under federal security, and that did not prevent those earlier tragedies. Furthermore, federal enforcement agencies, judging from past experience, are unlikely to show much concern for the rights or dignity of the American citizenry as they try to travel by air. Airports would become more like prison camps or a military barracks than places of commerce and transportation.

On the other hand, privatization of airports and air traffic control would now place the safety of air travelers directly on the shoulders of the suppliers of transportation and the related facilities. No airline or airport would make money if it failed to secure the safety and lives of its customers and passengers. The insurance companies carrying the policies on airline companies and airports would insist on various safety measures and methods to minimize the risk of a hijacking or a terrorist act. The history of private “regulation” through the insurance and related industries is a long and successful one. (See the review of Regulation without the State, by John Blundell and Colin Robinson in Freedom Daily, June 2001.)

In addition, precisely because airports would be completely private enterprises, the owners and managers of such facilities would have the greatest incentive to ensure safety and yet do it in a way that is least intrusive or offensive to their customers. A private company does not make money by being rude or violent to its clientele. Each company would have an interest in finding that best balance between the safety and security of its customers, while at the same time respecting its customers’ rights and dignity. And they would try to do so in a way that minimized their insurance premiums against claims if they failed to deliver their passengers without harm.

And what is to be done about bringing the perpetrators of the crimes of September 11 to justice? President Bush stated that he remembered posters in the old west that would say, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” There are still bonded bounty hunters in the United States today who are legally recognized as having the authority to apprehend and turn over to the authorities those against whom arrest warrants have been issued. And these bounty hunters are permitted to use force to bring suspects into custody. Considering the huge amount of money that is being proposed to be spent for a military confrontation to bring Osama bin Laden and his followers into custody, a more efficient and less costly method would be for the U.S. government to place a $500 million bounty on bin Laden’s head, and $250 million on each of his known co-conspirators. And make those bounties tax-free.

Yes, there may be many of those around bin Laden who for religious or political reasons would not turn him over even at that price. But there are enough people who would have their price, including those who would be willing to risk going into Afghanistan or wherever else he may be hiding and try to bring him back, dead or alive. Incentives are a wonderful mechanism for bringing about desired results.

For the longer term there is no solution as long as we, as a nation, allow and support our government’s continuing policy of foreign intervention around the world. That is the root and ultimate cause of this campaign of terror against the United States. If we continue to put our hands in the hornets’ nest we should not be surprised that we get stung, and the more nests we place our hands in, the more enemies we create who will desire revenge.

The perpetrators of those terrible events on September 11 have been called cowards. Yes, they were cowardly in that they kidnapped unarmed men, women, and children on hijacked airplanes and brought passengers to their death. But they are not cowards who run for their own lives. They are dedicated fanatics determined and willing to die for their cause, regardless of how inhuman or irrational or misguided we may consider their cause. The terrorist pilots who seized those planes grabbed hold of the controls and purposely, intentionally steered their captured aircrafts into the World

Trade Towers and the Pentagon at 400 miles per hour. They saw their own deaths facing them and they did not turn away. These are not cowards. These are dangerous people.

As a nation we should look after the preservation of our own liberty at home, and try to serve as an example of a just and free society for others around the world, as we did in the 19th century when we avoided foreign entanglements in other countries. Whether peoples in other parts of the world come to understand and value freedom and a peaceful society as we do is beyond our control to dictate. If we try to socially engineer their future through the means of political and military intervention we will be risking our own freedom and security, and may end up losing both at the end of the process.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).