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War Psychology: A Tool for Shaping Public Policy

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“War has shaped our constitutional order, the course of our national development, and the very mentality of our people,” argued Professor Ralph Raico in the February 1995 issue of Freedom Daily . He may be right. However, laying aside the issues of global, national, and regional clashes, it’s important to understand the psychology of war, as well, and recognize its prevalence in public policy.

Because deprivation is a staple of war, people accept it as inevitable. During war, people yield to loss or diminution of necessities, luxuries, and especially liberty. Subjugation of individual goals to the collective goal of winning the war becomes plausible. Once people concede that someone or something is an intolerable threat, expansion of government prerogatives becomes easy.

Consequently, the psychology of war is an effective and favored tool for shaping public policy. Government initiatives are routinely portrayed as holy crusades in which dissent is tantamount to heresy. Federal initiatives against poverty, immigration, drug abuse, and terrorism are saturated with this pernicious rationale.

In war, cost is seldom an important consideration. Consider the War on Poverty. Some $225 billion a year is presently spent on welfare benefits. But as Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute points out: “Poverty rates are no lower now than before the War on Poverty started.” More important, the war to end poverty has shackled, not liberated, the poor. They are virtually enslaved by the welfare system. Yet, under the banner of compassion for the poor, the war has successfully institutionalized the welfare state and enshrined Big Brother in American society.

Immigration once enjoyed approval from the left and from free-market enthusiasts on the right. It’s now a fertile field for war. From California Senator Dianne Feinstein to Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, from environmentalists to traditionalists, immigrants are characterized as one of our nation’s greatest security threats.

Moreover, America’s war on immigration is escalating. “It’s not just illegal immigration that’s out of control,” says Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation . “So is legal immigration.” Dan Stein, executive director of The Federation for Immigration Reform, states frankly: “It cheapens the public debate to pretend there’s a difference between legal and illegal immigration.” According to The Village Voice, “Stein recently warned that if Congress didn’t act, ‘a bloody battle’ over immigration ‘would be settled in the street.’”

And members of Congress are calling for immigration legislation that includes provisions for a national identity card with biometric identifier, a comprehensive national registry of every American, and federal approval of anyone seeking employment.

Further confirming Hobbe’s observation that “force and fraud are in war the cardinal virtues,” the war on drugs continues to ravage the American people and our Constitution. Attributing an increase in drug use to lack of “tough-minded” policies and punishment, William Bennett and John Walters asserted that “the drug war was a huge domestic policy success” during the 1980s. While such an assertion is tenuous at best (if it was such a success, why was it continued?), fabrication of information regarding warrant applications, paid informants, entrapment, aerial surveillance, and forfeiture and confiscation of property without a trial have been — and are today — routine. In an essay for National Review , former Police Chief Joseph D. McNamara explained: “Soldiers in a war need to dehumanize the enemy, and many cops look on drug users as less than human.” For example, former police chief of Los Angeles, Daryl Gates, suggested to the U.S. Senate that drug users should be taken out and shot. His rationale — “We’re in a war.”

Timing is important, especially in politics. The Oklahoma bombing virtually guaranteed the creation of the Omnibus Counter Terrorism Act. According to a National Security Study report, since terrorism was already subject to criminal punishment, “the main purpose of the proposal seems to be to avoid certain constitutional and statutory protections that would otherwise apply.”

“Who do these people think they are, saying their government is stamping out human freedom?” blustered President Clinton, as he called for expansion of already unparalleled federal powers. While Clinton’s antiterrorism package has been amended, it originally included, among other things, new categories of federal crimes, expanded FBI power to conduct wiretaps, and allowed the military to become involved in domestic law enforcement. It also expanded federal agents’ access to information, such as travel and credit reports.

In the war theater, both Democrats and Republicans vie for center stage. The lust for power is bipartisan, and political posturing abounds. Ostensibly to protect us from endless scourges, thousands of new laws are imposed on the American people, regulating and restricting the minute details of our daily lives. In spite of impassioned pledges from both parties to protect and liberate us, we are left with neither security nor liberty.

New wars are declared regularly.

There’s growing hostility against emigration — against Americans who are trying to flee the tax and regulatory tyranny in the United States. And punitive legislation has been enacted to deal with such “traitors.”

Thanks to the environmentalists, cocaine smuggling may become passé. Because some people want air-conditioning more than drugs, it’s now more profitable to smuggle CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons like Freon, a refrigerant) than cocaine. Becoming a “refrigerant-free society” promises to be one of our next “moral equivalents of war.”

There is a formula for war, and it is always the same: Identify or create a crisis with sufficient moral or security implications to garner support. Whatever else war is, it is a license to do what would otherwise be indefensible. Until the American people recognize that war psychology is a tool for shaping Leviathan public policy, wars and their attendant oppression will continue to enjoy exponential growth. It cost 58,000 lives to teach Robert S. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, what should have been obvious: “We may have to live in an imperfect and untidy world.”

What will it cost to teach the rest of us the same lesson?

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    Mrs. Farmer, a Freedom Daily subscriber, is a freelance journalist whose writings have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Freeman, and International Money and Politics.