THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 140, September 24, 2001
Cliff 'Em All!
On Attacking Nations That Harbor Terrorists
by David M. Brown
Exclusive to TLE
It's war ... and it should be.
One of the many commentaries circulating about the twin-tower disaster and likely aftermath is "An Afghan-American speaks" by Mir Tamim Ansary, published September 14, 2001 by Salon.com. Mr. Ansary is from Afghanistan and has been following events there during all his 35 years in the United States.
"I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama bin Laden," he writes. "There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.
"But the Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think 'the people of Afghanistan' think 'the Jews in the concentration camps.'
"It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators....
"We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already....
"New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs....
"So what else is there? What can be done, then? Let me now speak with true fear and trembling. The only way to get Bin Laden is to go in there with ground troops....
"Let's pull our heads out of the sand. What's actually on the table is Americans dying. And not just because some Americans would die fighting their way through Afghanistan to Bin Laden's hideout. It's much bigger than that, folks....We're flirting with a world war between Islam and the West....
"And guess what: That's bin Laden's program. That's exactly what he wants. That's why he did this."
See Ansary's article at Salon.com at
Ansary makes good points. I'm not sure he is right to imply that the Taliban could survive as a government without some significant level of support from the people -- not from all of them, but some of them, at least. Nor would it have to be active and happy support; could be tacit and resigned. Governments don't operate in a social and cultural vacuum. In addition to shoving guns in people's faces, tyrannies typically spew a constant stream of propaganda and need the words along with the guns to control the populace. Which means that somebody must be attending to those words, even if they don't literally believe them. If Afghanistan really is the literal equivalent of a concentration camp, with nobody but the people in power having the capacity to do anything, I stand corrected.
Ansary also claims that the Taliban is not even the government there. Well, if you're in control of a nation and you lay down the law there, you're the government. It is not a defining feature of governments that they be non-thuggish.
Ansary marginally supports a ground war as versus a video-game bombing campaign, but suggests that if the American military goes after terrorists and their governmental supporters in any sustained way at all, we risk igniting a conflict of such scope that it would be in the interest of nobody but the people who want to see destruction for the sake of destruction. But he does not say what we _should_ do, regardless of what Bin Laden and his cohorts "want us" to do. (I suspect that if our government sat on its hands and did nothing militarily, Bin Laden would not be too upset about it.)
I think the U.S. probably should "clear out the rats' nest" of the Taliban and also go after other countries that support and enable terrorism. I am persuaded that if we just go after individual terrorists, as if confronting a mere "criminal justice" matter, we won't be doing much to protect ourselves. We're dealing with people willing to throw their lives away from the outset, and there are plenty of desolate young men now being inspired by the same training videos that revved up the hijackers, ready to take their place, just as eager to get to heaven by deliberately targeting and snuffing innocent human beings who pose no physical threat to them whatever. The governments that support and harbor and empower these terrorist networks are also the enemy. What we must do is eliminate or at least cripple terrorist networks and sources of support. If not all of those networks, most of them. If not most, at least some.
A number of left-libertarians and "paleo-" libertarians and whatever-libertarians (Justin Raimondo, Jeff Riggenbach, Lew Rockwell, Harry Browne) agree with the more rabid leftists in attributing all this to bad U.S. foreign policy, and seem to blame the victim. (Then there's the view we could just "stop using oil" and rely only on solar energy or whatever, which is what at least one Styrofoam-brained environmentalist argues.) While I agree there is bad U.S. foreign policy and even that some of that foreign policy likely helped breed and empower terroristic opposition to the U.S., I don't agree at all that terrorists and tyrants who hate the U.S. and its citizens or the West and its citizens do so primarily because of it. These killers are not motivated by love of life...obviously. And I don't think that if we simply withdrew from hot spots around the globe that they would say, "Whew! our little plan worked. No need to try to infiltrate and destroy capitalist-pig America any more! Let's just focus on Israel and Britain!" We can't export our own normal presumptions of rationality and good will into the psychologies of those who utterly spurn such things.
A chronic problem of U.S. foreign policy is that it is aggressive and interventionist when it shouldn't be aggressive and interventionist, and accommodating and appeasing when it shouldn't be accommodating and appeasing. It is all over the map. Of course, that is the problem not only of foreign policy but of government action per se. Sometimes our government acts domestically to defend our rights, and does it well or badly, but at any rate not consistently. And increasingly often it acts to openly violate our rights, sometimes without even bothering about a pretext. If we can get to a situation where the U.S. government sticks in a principled way to its legitimate program of defending actual individual rights, we would of course be in much better shape. But that depends a lot on the culture and society, which takes time to change, and not just on whom we hire at the ballot box to formulate and execute policy.
In any case, we have to deal with and function in the situation as it is now. We can't say government may never act as an agent of force because it sometimes, even often, does so badly or illegitimately; or because its blunders and crimes can be exploited for propaganda by vicious and opportunistic killers. Despite everything, our government is still a heap sight better in its motives and values than the aggressors in this case. And the American government has the capability and the moral right to act in defense of America's assaulted citizenry.
If we do nothing of weight against the terrorists and their sponsors -- if we only do some of the things they want us to do, or at least those few that we feel are reasonable, to try to buy them off -- that inaction will be perceived as appeasement and capitulation, and will not exactly curb the nihilistic impulse to smash us. Even without U.S. military garrisons dotting the globe, America's influence will still be widely felt and bitterly resented by the sorts of people who bitterly and viciously resent freedom, crass commercialism, secularism, Hollywood movies. All this competes menacingly with their own turgid and self-abasing way of life. Or are we supposed to shut down global trade and global communication too?
There is the question of innocent victims, like those citizens of Afghanistan who do not at all support the Taliban or terrorism. This is always the tragedy of war. But although the deaths of innocents should indeed be avoided if possible during war, you can't conduct military campaigns with the primary aim of avoiding killing innocents. The primary aim is to defeat the enemy. And if the war is justified, the responsibility for the lives lost (on both sides) has to be laid at the feet of the aggressors. The bad guys generally decline to line up and congregate in such a way that it will be easy to get them and nobody else. They will not even do that if you give them explicit instructions to do that. They'll just make sure to lug innocent victims along wherever they go.
There are those who suggest that the very prospect of jeopardizing innocent civilians means that war can never be fought under almost any circumstance, unless perhaps troops are actually swarming in on us on both shores as we're being carpet-bombed from above. No. War is sometimes justified. And war entails risk of killing innocent people. If that risk must preclude any military engagement at all, there could be no right to national self-defense, and we'd have to disband all our military forces forthwith. But that is a policy consonant with suicide, not self-preservation.
I would agree with L. Neil Smith and others that the culture of gun control/victim disarmament helped make the hijackings possible, that all the horror of last September's attacks may well have been prevented if only people had been allowed to arm themselves in self-defense as a matter of course. At the very least, barring an immediate sea change in cultural attitudes, pilots should pack pistols. And passengers should still be allowed to pack at least toothpicks.
But the terrorists have more than one way to get at us. If one option is foreclosed, they'll pick the next-most-vulnerable avenue of attack. The necessity of a surefooted and crippling military response remains.
Another thing we could do in the absence of any credible response to the act of war is seal off all our borders (perhaps using electrified barbed wire, plus a moat with alligators), stamp everybody with a number, make sure there's a camera on every street corner and in every home and that all the phone calls and email are spot-checked, and set one half of America to monitoring the other half of America. Then we might be alerted to any action that even vaguely resembles some sort of opposition to the U.S. government and its policies, and make sure it's nipped in the bud. Handcuffing passengers as they board planes and removing the handcuffs as they get off the planes might also help. We seem to be on the way to doing all this anyway. "War is the health of the state," as has been recently quoted at me. It is, even when war is justified.
I hasten to add that I would not support any kind of policies that would even begin to approach this kind of lockdown. And even then, it seems to me it would still be possible to nuke us.