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The New World Disorder

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AFTER MORE THAN A DECADE into the New World Order the only thing that looks new is the disorder on American soil wreaked by foreign terrorists on September 11. The atrocities of that day nearly defy the imagination. The assault by air on, and collapse of, the wondrous World Trade Center towers might have made a cinematic spectacle, but it would have had a far-fetched air to it. Now it has happened for real. All who appreciated those towers as symbols of commerce — which is to say, peace and prosperity — were sickened at the strike, not to mention the horrendous loss of life, many of the victims practitioners of the peaceable and creative art of securities trading.

Much of the reaction since that day has been praiseworthy. The outpouring of condolences for the families of the dead, sympathy for the survivors, and admiration for the courageous rescuers fills all Americans with pride. The demand for justice for the perpetrators (those who did not die in the evil deeds, that is) was more than justified.

But the reaction has gone beyond that. While not as uninhibited as one might imagine, there has been a war fever building. It apparently won’t be enough to round up the collection of persons against whom there is evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — even if one of those persons is Osama bin Laden, the former CIA ally in the Afghan war against the late Soviet Union. Fed by inflammatory statements by President Bush (he’s promised a “crusade” to eradicate evildoers throughout the world via Operation Infinite Justice — a name since withdrawn), the world is expecting the United States to unleash its military might to smash terrorist organizations and infrastructures wherever they may be found. Easy to say.

There is always a decided lack of interest in history at a time like this. Perhaps it’s understandable. Yet Santayana’s clichéd adage applies. If we ignore the events and actions that sowed the seeds for the crimes of September 11, we might be forced to relive them, or something worse. That must not happen.

But for some — I’ll call them the war hawks — even to mention history is to be guilty of coddling the monstrous terrorists and condoning mass murder, as though understanding amounts to excusing and forgiving. It does not.

In 1991 I wrote a paper for the Cato Instituted titled “‘Ancient History’: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East since World War II and the Folly of Intervention” which is posted on Cato’s website.

The first part of the title was a quotation from President Jimmy Carter, uttered when Iranian militants took 52 Americans hostage after seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. The U.S. government by that time had had a long history of unjustifiable intervention in Iran, which included restoring a brutal monarch to power in 1953, but that was irrelevant as far as Carter was concerned. History could teach us nothing useful, he said. The point of those who disagreed with Carter was not that the hostage-takers were justified. As I wrote then, “Acknowledged herein is a fundamental, yet deplorably overlooked, distinction between understanding and excusing. The purpose of this survey is not to pardon acts of violence against innocent people but to understand the reasons that drive people to violent political acts. The stubborn and often self-serving notion that the historical record is irrelevant because political violence is inexcusable ensures that Americans will be caught in crises in the Middle East and elsewhere for many years to come.”

The relevance of motive

Actually, when the war hawks say it is not appropriate to try to understand the terrorists’ motivation, they do not mean what they say. We know this because they themselves claim to understand the motives, and they are eager to talk about them. As President George W. Bush said in his address to the joint session of Congress, “They [the perpetrators] hate what we see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Many government officials and commentators have said the same thing.

What is that if not an attempt to understand the terrorists? The hawks just don’t want to hear dissent from their own conclusions.

So we have a disagreement. Were the perpetrators motivated by some general hatred of American liberty and prosperity — of modern civilization itself — or by concrete acts of coercive intervention carried out by the U.S. government? This latter position is not properly called “blame America first.” Everyone, particularly libertarians, should be capable of distinguishing America from the government.

This dispute is resolvable. We may resort to Occam’s Razor, which holds that when two explanations seem to account for a phenomenon, the simpler is likely to be the correct one. The proposition that people embittered by 50 years of violent U.S. government intervention in the Middle East, both directly and by proxy, would respond with violence against that government’s population is entirely plausible. Much less plausible is that terrorists would go to so much trouble (even killing themselves) in reaction to Americans’ distant enjoyment of freedom and prosperity.

Beyond that, we have the terrorist leaders’ own words to support the simpler explanation. In interview after interview, Osama bin Laden has denounced the U.S. government for stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, for harming the Iraqis, and for supporting the subjugation of the Palestinians. He has no reason to lie about that.

It may also be noted that the hawks do not object to attributing the terrorist violence partly to U.S. policies in the Middle East. They readily agree that the terrorists hate U.S. policy. But, they add, that is no reason to conclude the policy is wrong or that it should be changed.

I agree. That terrorists object to the policies does not mean the policies are wrong or that they should be changed. They would be wrong and should be changed even if they had never incited a single act of terrorism.

The charge of moral relativism

The hawks have also leveled the charge of moral relativism at those of us who see the seeds of terrorism in U.S. policy. How absurd. It is moral relativism that we reject. It is the hawks who judge U.S. government conduct by standards different from those applied to others. The U.S. government has bombed Iraq for more than a decade, often killing civilians. It has starved and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians by means of economic sanctions. But that cannot qualify as terrorism. Why? Because U.S. policymakers control the official definition of “terrorism.” By definition, the U.S. government cannot commit terrorism even if it tried. That, I submit, is moral relativism.

We dissenters ask for a single standard by which to judge conduct. Bombing civilian areas or infrastructure, as the U.S. government did in Iraq, Serbia, and elsewhere, is immoral, although one should acknowledge the distinction between a wanton disregard of innocent life and a deliberate effort to maximize civilian casualties. The fact that it is done by the sole superpower, proclaiming freedom and justice as its goals, does not exclude it from an objective definition of “terrorism.” There is only one sense in which the U.S. government’s conduct does not qualify as terrorism. Terroristic tactics are the traditional methods of the weak against the strong, particularly against empires. The U.S. government is strong and has flexed that strength countless times in the last half-century.

Interventionism and foreign policy

The American people are intuitively noninterventionists. That has its good and bad sides. The good side is that they generally have no taste for interfering in other countries’ affairs. The bad side is that they pay little attention to U.S. foreign policy and assume good faith in the policymakers. Thus when they hear that U.S. policy has failed to live up to basic moral standards, they react with incredulity.

Sadder still, so do many libertarians. Murray Rothbard often wrote about the unlibertarian nature of U.S. foreign policy, and many libertarians have done likewise for years. They have further lamented the lack of interest in the subject by most libertarians. Both points are well confirmed any time a crisis erupts.

After the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a few libertarians tried to put the events in the wider context of U.S. foreign policy. The reaction among some of their brethren was astounding. It was as though they had never before heard that the U.S. government has a nasty record in foreign affairs. Not only did they not believe it, they responded that with the nation on the brink of war, it was not the time to bring this up. But where were they when there was no crisis?

This is the frustrating thing. When there is no crisis, no one wants to hear criticisms of foreign policy. When the U.S. government is about to embark on a new interventionist project, warnings of a terrorist response are dismissed as at best alarmist and perhaps cowardly. And when terrorism occurs, we’re told it’s no time to talk about how U.S. policy might have incited it.

In other words, it’s never time to talk about the dangers and consequences of U.S. intervention. How convenient for the policymakers! Such a practice gives them the privacy and flexibility they have always sought. But what a shame that libertarians help to provide it.

Where are we now? We are at a fork in the road, where members of Congress, who never tire of finding ways to violate our rights, tell us they will now have to find a new “balance” between liberty and security. We are in the rather odd position of looking for protection from the very institution that has compromised it.

If that isn’t an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, what is?

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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.