Liberty in the Age of Terrorism

Boston, “threat inflation,” and the reality of blowback

by , May 03, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombing, horrific in and of itself, is made far worse by our response to it. For one thing, hate is on the march. Listen here to the conversation between a Washington, D.C. cabbie – a Muslim from Somalia – and his crazed passenger, who rants that the Koran mandates death for unbelievers and demands the poor guy “denounce 9/11.” The passenger then assaults the cabbie, who reportedly suffered a fractured jaw.

Terror, such as we saw in Boston, is our doorway into Bizarro World, where up is down and everything is stood on its head. Sen. Rand Paul, leader of the GOP’s libertarian wing, responded to the Boston bombing by writing a letter to Harry Reid averring we ought to forget about immigration reform and suggesting “We suspend student visas, or at least those from high-risk areas, pending an investigation into the national security implications of this program” And, of course, the response of law enforcement was to shut down an entire city, ordering people to stay in their homes and imposing what amounted to martial law. Luckily for the cops, someone violated that order, went out to get a breath of fresh air, and saw Dzhokhar’s blood trickling out of a boat parked in the back yard.

The problem – especially for libertarians, such as myself – is that some of these reactions are, on some level, perfectly understandable. Rand Paul is a friend of liberty: his default position is to maximize individual freedom. But Boston, in his mind, rendered that default position inoperable: now we have to consider keeping out students from abroad because, after all, they might be terrorists plotting to blow us up. It doesn’t occur to him that there are already 764,495 foreign students in the US. Are we going to deport them all? Or only those from certain countries? Which countries? By some measures, both England and France fit into this category – or is the ban to be limited to places like Kazakhstan and Chechnya? Nor does this cover the entire field: what about families from “high risk areas” who have been here for generations?

Yet Sen. Paul’s reaction is not irrational: it is simply not thought out. People react instinctually to threats of violence, to the sight of a horror like the Boston Marathon bombing – or 9/11, for that matter – and America is peculiarly susceptible to this kind of fear.

Your chances of being killed or hurt by a terrorist act are minuscule, but that is irrelevant. The real impact of terrorism is psychological, and, ultimately, political: it resonates fear throughout the culture in a way we in America have not experienced before. The wars we have fought in modern times have largely spared us: no enemy has penetrated the “homeland” since Pearl Harbor, and thankfully Americans were untouched by what happened to Europe and Japan during World War II. We wandered merrily through history relatively unscathed – until September 11, 2001.

That’s what the “war bloggers” meant when they insisted, post 9/11, that “everything’s changed.” Former “liberals” began singing odes to war. Television anchors wore flags on their lapels and Phil Donahue was given his walking papers. Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims by roving bands of violent rednecks. Congress passed the “Patriot” Act – effectively nullifying the Constitution – without even reading it. Over three thousand people lost their lives – and over 300 million Americans went crazy.

That’s what terrorism is all about: although the terrorists want to kill and maim as many as possible, the point is to terrorize the rest. That is, reduce them to such a state that they’ll really believe “everything’s changed” and they have to alter their behavior in ways they would not previously have considered. A libertarian calls for kicking out foreign students; a man who probably wouldn’t hurt a fly under normal circumstances assaults an innocent cab driver; public officials sworn to uphold the Constitution shred it. It’s what I call the Bizarro Effect.

There is only one way to combat the Bizarro Effect, and turn the world right side up again – that is, return it to roughly the state it was before we slipped down the rabbit hole and into this strange alternate universe. We have to recognize the source of these terrorist attacks, which is our foreign policy of global intervention.

Such recognition is taboo, at least among our political elites. Remember the reaction to Ron Paul’s invocation of “blowback” during the Republican primary debate? According to them, this was to be his downfall: from that moment on, he was to be considered beyond the pale. Yet it wasn’t his downfall, because he was telling Americans a hard truth, one recognized by growing numbers of Americans and dramatized yet again by the Boston bombing.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev explicitly pointed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the motive behind the bombings. This is how terrorist organizations recruit people. Not by telling them Americans are kaffirs, who roll about in their own decadent filth and spend Sundays worshipping Satan, but by pointing out that the Americans are killing them. Michael Scheuer had it right when he argued, in his excellent book, Imperial Hubris, that Washington is the best ally Osama bin Laden ever had.

In order to push their agenda of perpetual war, the neoconservatives who seized effective control of the US government after 9/11 perpetuated the myth of “they hate us for our freedoms.” The irony of this line of argument – considering the history of US support for dictators in the Arab world – was lost amid the emotionalism of those dark days.

Foreign policy is usually relegated to the back burner in American politics. It’s just another “issue,” along with tax policy, immigration policy, and what have you. This is absolutely wrong: it is the only issue. I mean this in the sense that, in the Age of Terrorism, the question of war and peace defines the context in which all other issues are debated.

While there is a certain amount of threat inflation built into the system – “cyber-security” and the alleged imminence of an “electronic 9/11″ being just the latest scam – it would be a mistake to downplay the very real threat posed by terrorism. We aren’t suffering from the delusion of threat inflation so much as we’re being victimized by intervention inflation. After all, if the effect of US intervention abroad really is as badand unjust – as we anti-interventionists say it is, then there are plenty of people in the world who are really really mad about it. As the US escalates its overseas wars, with our killer drones raining devastation at will, the intensity of the “blowback” is increasing. In this context, Sen. Paul can hardly be faulted for thinking we’re taking a calculated risk by letting a student from, say, Pakistan study in the US as long as we’re launching drone strikes on his friends – and family – back home.

This is part of the enormous price we pay for our self-appointed role as world policeman: we are being forced into a position where we are considering giving up the incalculable economic and social benefits of immigration – including a formerly harmless student visa program – in order to defend ourselves from a horde of angry fanatics. In a libertarian America, the freedom to travel – a basic right – would not be open to question: our foreign policy of perpetual war is taking us farther away from that world.

Or take the issue of government spending: we spend trillions on the defense of the “homeland” while we’re engaged in a merciless war on other people’s homelands. As long as we persist in the latter, it’s hard to make the case that we oughtn’t to continue the former. If we don’t put down our sword, arguing we should put down our shield will get us nowhere.

On the civil liberties front, our “global war on terrorism” has exacted a terrible price. We are very near to becoming a police state – all in the name of a war on those who are said to hate us for our supposed “freedoms.” There is no irony in our post-9/11 world.

The war we have been fighting for the past 12 years has poisoned every aspect of American life, infecting not only our politics but also our culture. People who wouldn’t ordinarily turn to hate are suddenly possessed as if by a demon. Once these emotions are unleashed, they are hard to control: whole societies can go off the deep end.

That is where we are headed unless we go to the source of the problem – American foreign policy. At this point, nothing less than a radical 180-degree turn will suffice: we need to get out of the empire-building business pronto – and there is majority support for this position. For years the Washington know-it-alls have been sadly shaking their heads over the stubborn “isolationism” of the American people, and every poll suggests Americans have had it up to here with our meddling ways. A Pew Poll a couple of years ago showed the overwhelming majority favor a foreign policy of “minding our own business.” Recent polls on whether we ought to meddle in the Syrian civil war – the current interventionist crusade – show over sixty percent opposed.

It’s no accident that the same politicians who declare “America is the battlefield” are the loudest when it comes to calling for intervention abroad. The Lindsey Grahams of this world understand the political dynamic involved: the question is – do the rest of us finally get it, after twelve years? America is a battlefield, as the shutdown of Boston dramatized so vividly – and the only way to end it is to end our policy of endless war.

All the other fronts in the battle for liberty are lost to us if we can’t win this one. You want immigration reform? Forget it – you won’t get it as long as we’re at war with much of the world. How about less government spending – or even redirecting some of that spending to more productive uses? Not going to happen as long as we’re intent on policing the globe. What about repealing the drug laws? Oh, but terrorists, who are known to engage in illegal activities in order to raise funds, will benefit from the legalization of their source of income – and we can’t have that.

I could go on, but you get the point. This is why I get so hot under the collar when some libertarians treat foreign policy as a “debatable” issue, which the freedom movement can have honest differences over. No, they can’t. The Warfare State must be ended first: when that happens, the rest can follow. Either that, or we will descend, slowly but surely – and, perhaps, not so slowly – into slavery.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), here.

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