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Terrorism, Anti-Terrorism, and American Foreign Policy, Part 2

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Shortly after the July 17, 1996, crash of TWA Flight 800, President Clinton called for the passage of a new anti-terrorism bill. He argued that unless federal law-enforcement agencies were given the tools needed to combat terrorism, the lives of Americans would be put into increasing danger. At the same time, he called for increased security measures at U.S. airports to foil terrorist attempts to plant bombs on airplanes on both domestic and international flights.

On July 26, President Clinton issued instructions to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to tighten airport security. He ordered increased screening of luggage, as well as greater inspection of airplane cargo. Hotel and curbside check-in, especially for international flights, was banned. Passengers were to be more carefully interviewed before boarding. And a plan for accelerating the introduction of more sophisticated bomb-detecting and screening devices was to be drawn up. The added costs and greater time at airports before being able to board a flight, the president said, would have be borne by the American people.

Two days later, on July 28, President Clinton called for new and tougher measures for fighting terrorism. He called for law-enforcement agencies to have the right to carry out “roving wiretaps,” in which not only would a single telephone line be approved by a judge for government eavesdropping but also any number of forms of telecommunication that might be used in sequence by a suspect being investigated by federal law-enforcement agents. The president also called for federal authority to control some types of Internet uses that federal agencies might believe are being used for unlawful or terrorist purposes. And he called for the use of “taggants,” or color-coded plastic identifiers, that would be mixed in with black and smokeless explosive powders, for purposes of easier tracing of any unlawful use of them back to their source.

Before its summer recess, on August 2, the House of Representatives took up the president’s bill and passed a modified version. Airport security would be heightened, including the installation of improved explosive-detection systems, and a “blue-ribbon” panel would look into the problem of terrorism. The bill would also allow federal prosecutors to charge suspected terrorists under tougher anti-racketeering laws designed to fight organized crime. (An earlier anti-terrorist law passed by Congress and signed by the president in 1995 already gives federal authorities greater powers in deporting suspected terrorists and preventing fund-raising in the U.S. by organizations suspected of potential terrorism.) But neither the roving wiretap nor the taggant proposals were included in the House bill in August.

The president’s response, on August 10, was to accuse the House of being soft on terrorism. He insisted: “We cannot cast aside any tools in this fight for the security of ou r country and the safety of our people.” Terrorism, President Clinton insisted, was “a central national-security priority.”

Terrorism has reached the shores of the United States and is a threat to the lives and security of Americans. But it has become a threat to Americans not because of lax counterterrorist techniques at airports or insufficient methods for investigating suspected terrorists. Terrorism has become a threat in America because of decades of U.S. foreign-interventionist policy.

It is a long-established insight of economic analysis that any government intervention in the market economy soon produces distortions that require the intervenor either to admit his mistake and repeal the intervention or to introduce further interventions in the hopeless attempt to correct the problems his earlier intervention created.

But any new, additional interventions merely tend to intensify and extend the distortions generated by the first intervention. The cumulative result of new interventions to try to compensate for earlier interventions is an expanding circle of government regulations and controls over economic activity that increasingly hamper the efficiency of the market economy and narrow the freedoms of the market participants to peacefully plan, produce, and voluntarily transact for mutual benefit.

This is no less true, oftentimes, in the case of political or military foreign intervention, as well. The international terrorism that seems to be beginning to plague Americans at home is the almost inevitable result of decades of U.S. intervention in various parts of the world. Guided since the 1940s by the ideology of the social engineer and stimulated by the pressure of certain special-interest groups at home that have various economic interests in different parts of the world, the U.S. government has embroiled the lives and fortunes of the American people in the affairs of other nations.

Whenever it has done so — whether to try to stabilize “friendly” governments; to secure resources or raw materials claimed by the Washington policymakers to be “vital” to American interests; to prevent “dangerous” ideologies or governments from spreading their influence in parts of the globe considered “essential” to American security — the U.S. government has invariably made enemies. Why? Because to intervene on the side of one group or a particular government in these foreign lands means, by definition, that the United States stands in opposition to the political groups, economic interests, or ideological movements attempting to change the existing circumstances in their own country or region of the world. Those groups, interests, and movements for change in those foreign lands now face two opposing forces: the government and policies of their own country and the political, financial, and military strength of the United States. As a result, they often begin to target not only the forces in their own country to which they are opposed but also the ally of those they oppose — the United States.

Since, unfortunately, the world we live in is dominated by collectivism, many of these political movements and causes around the world assign little or no importance to the rights or sanctity of the individual. As a consequence, all Americans, regardless of who they are and where they are, become targets for the terrorist acts of those wishing to strike a blow against America. And if teaching America a lesson involves these people’s bringing their war, civil war, or revolution to the United States itself, then Americans soon end up paying the price for the interventionist sins of their own government.

How does the U.S. government respond? Again, unfortunately, in a manner typical of the interventionist mind-set. It doesn’t recognize that its own foreign-policy adventures have brought this tragedy down upon the heads of the American people. It doesn’t consider the possibility of reevaluating the interventionist policies that have brought about this situation. It fails to contemplate a reversal of its courses of action and the ending of its foreign interventions.

Instead, the government immediately responds with new forms of domestic intervention to try to ameliorate the negative effects of the earlier foreign interventions. Foreign terrorists react to American political, financial, and military interventions in their parts of the world with acts of terrorism in the United States, and the U.S. government proposes restrictions on the liberties of Americans to minimize the damage of its own policies.

Immediately, as we saw in President Clinton’s proposals, the Federal Aviation Administration was to impose severe and mandatory uniform security systems at America’s airports, to be paid for through higher airfares charged to passengers. Private citizens will have their person and property open to a potentially comprehensive search. The valuable time of both business and pleasure travelers will have to be eaten up by government-ordered delays, while baggage and cargo are mo re carefully inspected.

But is there any reasonable alternative to these types of government regulations and intrusions, given the potential dangers of terrorist acts against American air flights? Yes, there is. About 15 years ago, Robert W. Poole, of the Reason Foundation, wrote an essay entitled “Toward Safer Skies,” in Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (1982). Mr. Poole discussed the costly inefficiency of the FAA regulations — that they stifled safety innovations in the marketplace by imposing uniform, mandatory rules on the airline industry. He suggested deregulation, with airlines privately responsible for their own travel safety:

“Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there were no FAA, that the government had not been given the role of enforcing air safety. What then? Studied from this angle, the dimensions of a solution become more apparent. If there were no government safety regulation, we can imagine many crashes, which would mean many lawsuits against airlines and aircraft producers; and then the insurance industry would be on the hook. Since aviation underwriters would be the ones ultimately accountable for the costs, it is they who would have the greatest economic incentive to make sure that flying is safe.”

If airports were completely privatized and no longer under government regulation, the private airport companies could make their own market-based, cost-benefit calculations about the degree of inconvenience and intrusiveness they found travelers were willing to incur for safety. Different airports and different parts of airports (e.g., domestic vs. international terminals) might have different degrees of security. Separate from general airport security, each airline in its part of a terminal could offer differing degrees of safety and security. Assuming that the tighter the security, the more expensive the equipment used, then the higher would be the airline ticket price for using those “tight-security” carriers. Travelers would select the security-cost combinations they found preferable.

At the same time, aviation underwriters, as Mr. Poole suggested in his article, would have incentives to work with airlines to improve safety through the development of cost-saving security technologies that would diminish the likelihood of terrorist bombings. The payoff from doing so would be fewer claims against the insurance companies and lower premiums for the airlines from fewer crashes.

If those advocating a “tough” anti-terrorist stance were to have their way, Americans would also see their liberty and privacy severely curtailed. When President Clinton first made his proposals for increased powers to fight terrorism on July 28, he said, “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.”

The first responsibility of the U.S. government is to respect and protect the rights of the American citizenry to their life, liberty, and property. Giving law enforcement “whatever is necessary” to fight crimes, including acts of terrorism, is not consistent with the premises of a free society. Government law-enforcement agencies should have only those “tools” consistent with the noninfringement of the peaceful citizens’ liberty. Anything going beyond that is no longer freedom-preserving, but, instead, freedom-threatening. And certainly no powers should be given to federal law-enforcement agencies that are outside of the narrow bounds of the enumerated responsibilities of the federal government under the Constitution.

Permitting “roving wiretaps” clearly falls into the category of freedom-threatening powers. Since a suspect under surveillance by a law-enforcement agency might easily communicate on dozens of telecommunication devices, the government would be given the authority to listen in on conceivably hundreds of people’s conversations, all of whom may be using the same communication instruments as the suspect; and these other users, perhaps having nothing or little to do with the suspect, might be using those instruments even 95 percent of the time. In the name of catching the suspect “in the act” over one of maybe dozens of telecommunication devices, many completely innocent individuals would have their privacy violated. And how could anyone, in principle, know whether he happens to be using one of the forms of telecommunication being monitored by the government? Would this not, potentially, inhibit people’s confidence that they could freely speak their mind, because the police might be listening in? What would be a clearer threat to that precious freedom of speech that is meant to be protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution?

Similarly, as long as Americans preserve their Second Amendment right to bear arms, it is highly dangerous for the government to have in its power the ability to track down various types of explosive powders that might be used with firearms. We should be more concerned with knowing what firearms and explosives law-enforcement agencies possess and can potentially use against the American people. As Larry Pratt, executive director of Guns Owners of America, pithily expressed it, “We need to be registering politicians, not citizens.”

In the name of trying to prevent terrorist acts or to track down those who may be suspected of having committed such an act, the government desires to acquire powers that would threaten the lives and liberties of the American people. The perversity of these proposals is that they are the result of the government’s own interventionist activities in other parts of the world.

The only way to minimize the danger of terrorism is to eliminate the irritation that is creating the conditions under which fanatics, ideologues, and radical fundamentalists of various collectivist stripes have come to see Americans as their enemy and as targets for the achievement of their ends in their own parts of the world. However, this can happen only by ending America’s interventionist meddling in other people’s affairs around the world.

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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).