THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 144, October 22, 2001
I Hear America Dying
Life Itself is the Issue
by Charles Novins, Esq.
Special to TLE
October 11, 2001
As Bush took to the prime-time airwaves last night, a new "threat alert" had just been issued by the Justice Department. I wondered just what Bush might say to help prevent further attacks. His pitch would begin, "If you terrorists are out there planning something, don't carry it out because......?" How would we fill in the blank?
If you think about it, there's really three ways to convince people to behave differently than what they have in mind:
The problem with most "evildoers" is that the first two alternatives are out.
Objectivists are of the view that evil IS unreason, but even if you are a follower of more conventional ethics, in most cases you'll agree that if the person could be reasoned with in the first place, we wouldn't need to resort to terms (admittedly loaded) such as "evildoer."
Objectivists similarly take an even dimmer view of rewarding evil. We surely don't see people as if they were rats in some sort of Skinner-maze, but we are big believers in (and advocates for) people following their self-interests.
We see a lot of other people who argue that we must be "selfless" or we must "love even those that don't love us," but those voices have been muted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Maybe they're just too angry to maintain their convictions in the wake of such horror, but I say maybe they're finding out - the hard way - that showering love on their enemies may in fact be an invitation to more violence. At minimum, people are at least considering the possibility that such "nonviolence" may indeed be a silent partner in terrorism.
So that leaves punishment. What's the worst punishment? So I filled in the blank with, "If you do more terrorism we'll...kill you, because we've got the death penalty now."
When my own laughter died down, I asked myself whether it was a problem with the death penalty itself that made this funny, or more a problem with the unique nature of this particular adversary. I've always thought the death penalty was useless at best, but this puts it in a brand-new light.
The death penalty is supposed to work on two levels. First, there's deterrence. [sigh] I guess we've adequately covered THAT. Then, there's the idea of justice, or paying for the crime. Well, our 19 hijackers actually made payment in advance on their crimes, didn't they? Are we to consider the whole thing "even?" Doesn't look like that works either.
Pursuing this line of reasoning actually gets funnier the deeper you go. If we caught up with OBL and imprisoned him, the death penalty would probably be his favorite among all alternatives. If we really want to give OBL proper payback, what could we do? The answer might be lifetime in a cell with nothing to read but Playboy and Penthouse. Maybe we'd send in an actual nude centerfold from time to time.
This has been a deep problem from the very beginning. Afghanistan, as a nation, has little to lose, and America is in precisely the opposite position. Punishment ought to be objective, but you cannot remove the subjective component. How do you punish someone with so little to lose?
This is reflected even in our war strategy. Americans love life, at least in part because we've made life good. But it also means that a battlefield exchange wherein one from each side gets killed is a very bad bargain for us. In fact, America has followed the "Powell Doctrine" rigorously so far - the strategy, coined by Colin Powell, of fighting a battle without risking American lives. That translates, of course, into a program of high-altitude bombing.
Possibly the most depressing fact of this new war, from my perspective, was the realization that this particular war cannot be won from the air. Friends convinced me of this as I speculated how we might bomb the enemy into submission. Friends asked why I was so fixated on bombs. Was I some kind of maniac?
In truth, I am nothing more than a life-lover, and I want to preserve the lives of life-lovers everywhere, especially those who risk that most beloved quality on my behalf. It may seem callous that there are undoubtedly many dead Afghans already, yet Americans wait with baited breath for the first report of even a single U.S soldier killed in action. But it's not callous at all, and it isn't tribalism, either.
Leaving aside the fractious issue of abortion, there's been (yet another) metaphorical "hijacking" in the use of the term "pro-life," which actually is the proper description for the American side in this war. Unlike the (ab)use of the term in the abortion debate, the adversary in this context is precisely "anti-life," both in action and philosophy.