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Terrorism, Anti-Terrorism, and American Foreign Policy, Part 1

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On July 17, 1996, TWA Fight 800 exploded into a fireball off the southern coast of Long Island and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, just minutes after it took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Two hundred and thirty human beings lost their lives. The anger and sorrow expressed by many Americans were understandable, as the evidence clearly pointed to a terrorist act.

Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on July 27, a pipe bomb exploded at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, resulting in two deaths and more than a hundred injured, generating even more anger among Americans.

There was also a sense of fatalistic inevitability. In comments collected from “man-on-the-street” interviews shown on the television news programs, a lot of people said they were surprised that more of these types of lethal attacks hadn’t occurred already around America. So much of the world is engulfed in violence and terror, it was logical that it would finally come to the United States. Time magazine’s August 5 issue, for example, warned that the United States may be entering “an awful time when terrorism might become woven into the fabric of American life.” AndNewsweek , in its August 5 issue, referred to these explosions as “further evidence to Americans that their long immunity from domestic terrorism has ended.”

What is terrorism all about? In essence, terrorism is a form of politics by other means. The perpetrators of terrorism wish to use a method of unconventional warfare to attain political or ideological goals that regular warfare or diplomacy cannot achieve. Terrorism may be state-sponsored, i.e., individuals and groups carrying out terrorist acts may receive funds, support, training, and protection from a government that does not wish to clash directly and overtly with another government. Or terrorism may be undertaken by individuals and groups who operate underground and illegally within one or more countries, with the goal of overthrowing existing governments and replacing them with an alternative political, religious, or ideological order.

Terrorists are not “crazy people” in the ordinary sense of the phrase; they are dedicated, disciplined individuals. Even when their deeds are meant as revenge, there is almost always thoughtful and careful “method to their madness.” And they are extremely dangerous. They don’t care about human life. The taking of targeted human lives is the very essence of their chosen method of operation. Their purpose is shock, psychological demoralization, fear, and destruction. They are not nice people.

Since the finger (right now) is pointing in the direction of one or more Islamic fundamentalist groups being behind the TWA Flight 800 bombing, let us suppose that that hypothesis is correct. Why would America be the target of terrorists, possibly from the Middle East? Historian Walter Laqueur, in his recent bookFascism: Pas t, Present and Future (1996), argued:

“Islamism is not a religion but an ideology based on religious elements who see as their main function a revolt against the West and modernity in general. Islamism is rooted in the resentments felt by Muslims against the dominant position of the West politically, culturally, and economically, and the stagnant state of Muslim societies. Western values are rejected because they undermine and subvert the traditional Muslim order and way of life, because they lead to the gradual marginalization of religion and the clergy. . . . The fundamentalists are traditionalist in some respects, although they do not want to preserve society and the individual exactly as they are, but to improve them. They want total control and enthusiastic support, not merely passive obedience. Such fundamentalism is profoundly undemocratic and anti-liberal. There is no dissent, only heresy. Individual human rights do not exist. Indeed, radical Muslim thinkers regard democracy as blasphemy. . . . [R]adical fundamentalism is a populist movement, based on social tensions and the misery and resentment of an underclass that has not benefited from modernization but instead feels left out or marginalized. It has a pronounced egalitarian streak and is directed against the better off.”

Laqueur also points out that Islamic fundamentalism rejects materialist socialism but favors a “just social order.” It opposes Western-style capitalism but does not necessarily oppose private property. And since it does not believe in free-market capitalism, a fundamentalist regime like the one in Iran has fostered a regulated economy, with government-controlled or government-approved cartels and monopolies.

Why is America hated? Yossef Bodansky, in his book Terror! (1994), argues:

“In the eyes of the Islamists, the American way of life and the very freedoms we most prize and cherish — the personal rights and freedoms of the individual, the pursuit of private happiness and betterment, the separation of church and state — make the United States ‘the Great Satan,’ their chief enemy. Because our way of life stands in such stark contradiction to the repressive, constricted authoritarian theocracy the Islamists demand for their own people, the very existence of American values is, for the Islamists, a deadly threat. They even describe it as a deliberate attack on Islam itself.”

There is no doubt that capitalism has always been perceived as the enemy by all those wishing to socially engineer the behavior of others. The free-market economy is the great liberator of individuals from artificial political restraints; it serves the wants of any and all groups of consumers who are willing to pay a price sufficiently profitable for some producer to supply the good or service demanded; it respects no traditions other than those people freely choose to practice and are willing to incur the personal costs to maintain; it rewards each member of a free society on the basis of how well he has served his fellow men in the peaceful process of market competition, with an inevitable inequality of earned income.

And it is certainly true that all totalitarian regimes and many authoritarian regimes in the 20th century have tried to curtail the flow of free information about the freer societies of the world, precisely because of their stark contrast with the ideology and practices of their own closed societies. And to the extent that Islamic fundamentalists hold the views and goals suggested by Laqueur and Bodansky, America is the “Great Satan” that threatens to tempt the people of the Islamic world with the ideal of individual freedom and material prosperity (no matter how imperfectly that ideal is, in fact, practiced in America, from the classical liberal’s perspective).

But is this a reason for Islamic terrorist acts in the United States, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City on February 26, 1993, or (if it turns out to be the case) the TWA crash on July 17, 1996? It cannot be discounted completely. But surely another element has been present as well — an element that has aroused the wrath, anger, and desire for revenge of Islamic radicals. It seems incomplete to suggest that America is being targeted by terrorists because of the temptations that may undermine the Islamic faith from the drinking of Coca-Cola, the wearing of Levi jeans, or the listening to rock or rap music. It would be logical to expect that terrorists would then be targeting the garment district in New York City or the Capitol Records building near the corners of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. One would not be surprised if Max Factor and Tupperware representatives traveling in the Middle East were among the primary targets for assassination. Heaven only knows what horrible fate would await any traveling salesman for Gillette razor blades who approached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean!

The fact is the United States has not only or merely been a “cultural imperialist” spreading it s way of life through the market appeal of the goods and services that private American companies offer to the consumers of the world. No, the United State government has also been a political and military interventionist throughout the world, including the Middle East, for all the decades since the Second World War. And this is the real and primary reason why Americans at home now find themselves “in harm’s way” from international terrorism.

The Middle East is a battleground of multiple combatants. There is the struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. There are the rivalries for regional power and leadership between Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, with smaller countries (Jordan, Lebanon, or Kuwait) balancing in between or caught in the literal crossfire. And there is Islamic fundamentalism vying for power and control, with or without the covert assistance of one or more of the regional Arab powers.

The United States government has intervened time and again in these disputes — taking sides, dispensing foreign aid, providing military assistance and training, and supporting some governments and working to overthrow others. For decades, it supported the shah, whom the Iranian fundamentalists overthrew; it has twice militarily intervened in Lebanon; it has spent tens of billions of dollars on foreign and military aid to both Israel and Egypt; it has bombed Libya and killed the adopted child of Muammar al-Qaddafi; it has shot down a civilian Iranian airline, killing hundreds of people; it fought a war against Iraq, bombing and killing thousands of Iraqi civilians; it permanently stations thousands of army and naval personnel in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries; and it actively opposes Islamic fundamentalist movements throughout the Middle East.

By necessity, the U.S. government has made enemies. Why is it so difficult to find out and pinpoint which fundamentalist or other terrorist group may have been behind a particular act of terrorism, separate from the forensic problems? Because the number of known or possible enemies is in the dozens. The U.S. government has kept putting its political and military hands in one hornet’s nest after another, and the terrorist acts now reaching America are the responses of some of those hornets who are angry at and resentful of our intervention. It is terrorism of our own making.

We have aroused the wrath and anger of groups who care little for human life and who are collectivist in their thinking. Since they think in collectivist terms about themselves and their opponents in their own parts of the world, it is not surprising that they view all Americans as the collective enemy. The “Great Satan” is “America,” with no distinction between the individuals in Washington who plan and initiate American foreign policy and the private American citizens who are noncombatants having little or no interest and understanding of what is going on in other parts of the world and who are merely the uninformed and misinformed taxpayers footing the government’s interventionist bills. If TWA Flight 800 was an act of fundamentalist terrorism, the 230 victims were targets because, in the eyes of the perpetrators, all Americans are “the enemy.”

Though it is not a view heard on the television or radio news or seen on the op-ed pages of the newspapers, the fact is that the United States government is as responsible as any terrorists who may have planted a bomb on TWA Flight 800. Saying this in no way, shape, or form condones the terrorists who may have committed this brutal crime. They are cruel killers who have committed mass murder and shattered the lives of the family members and friends who have been left to mourn and suffer.

But whose interventions — whose interference into the politics and power rivalries of the Middle East — may have served as the motive for these terrorists to turn their violent activities in the direction of American territory? Whose diplomatic and military intrigues in the internal affairs of these Middle Eastern countries may have resulted in these terrorists’ looking upon all Americans as their enemy, rather than directing their violent fanaticism against their opponents in their own countries?

If the terrorist perpetrators of this cruel act are apprehended, tried, and convicted in a court of law, they should bear the punishment that fits the crime. But their apprehension will not end the danger of terrorism in America. That danger can be minimized only if the United States government stops its interventionist foreign policy.

George Washington’s wise advice of trade and commerce with all, but foreign alliances and intrigues with none, is the only foreign policy that will free America from the threat of foreign fanatics hunting for revenge for what they view as the American government’s interference into matters that are not its concern.

And they are not the U.S. government’s concern. Its responsibility is to secure and protect the life and property of the people within the territorial boundaries of the United States. Instead, the United States government, especially since the Second World War, has tried to take on the role of global social engineer and policemen, in a world that really does not want either American paternalism or military heavy-handedness. In the name of maintaining world peace and order according to the Washington policy-makers’ vision of a peaceful and properly ordered world, we have merely generated a seemingly endless number of enemies. And some of them are extremely nasty.

What does the U.S. government offer the American citizenry as an answer to the problem of terrorism? It proposes to fight terrorism by limiting even further the liberties of the American people at home and when they travel abroad. In the name of greater security, we are being asked to give up even more of our liberty.

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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).