Pouring Gasoline on the Fire

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Around 9:15 yesterday morning (i.e., September 11), I got an email from my sister-in-law telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Terrible accident, I figured. Not long after, she let me know that another plane had hit. My God, I wondered, where would this all end. It was, by that point, beyond dispute that a hideous and coordinated act of terror had taken place. Later, I learned of the planes which hit the Pentagon and rural Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

My mind raced to consider who I knew in the World Trade Center, who I knew at the Pentagon. My cousin is a New York City cop. As far as we know, he is alive, not having been scheduled to work until 11 a.m. yesterday. He was called in to respond to the emergency well before 11 a.m. On the other hand, my wife’s cousin works at the Pentagon, and we have no idea of her whereabouts. It’s possible she was at home on maternity leave.

Last night, Fox News was simply depressing. Politicians and pundits called to “unleash the dogs of war,” to wage all-out war on those responsible. The major difficulty, of course, is that we are not yet certain who is responsible (besides those who blew themselves to oblivion) or what is an effective way of fighting back.

There were dim and bright spots in the commentary. George Will, again showing me why I am no longer a conservative, wrote that

There can be no immunity from these vulnerabilities, but that is not a reason for fatalism. A proactive policy begins with anticipation. Therefore the first U.S. policy response must be to reevaluate and strengthen the national intelligence assets, particularly the CIA and FBI, which are the sine qua non of counterterrorism.

Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry, and their proper anger now should be alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues — principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations that, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world.

Will simply ignores the fact that the Vatican has condemned the actions of Israel toward the Palestinians. While Palestinian youths throw rocks, Israeli troops fire rockets and bullets. The overwhelming majority of those who have died since the collapse of the “peace process” have been Palestinians. Israel is far from an “embattled salient of virtue.” Instead, the Israeli land-grab policies and assassination campaign against Palestinian leaders has thrown gasoline on a fire.

The Vatican has also condemned the American bombing of Iraq. Inconvenient to think about that, so ignore it as if it didn’t happen.

With respect to the CIA and FBI, they have let us down – again. Oklahoma City? Embassies overseas? The USS Cole? As someone who has written in defense of Kimmel and Short, I am not calling for scapegoats to be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion.

On the other hand, the various federal agencies, with their billions upon billions of dollars, failed to prevent yesterday’s destruction. If they were private companies, they would be fired, if not sued as well. I would not, in the words of Newt Gingrich, sanction a “witch hunt” of the intelligence agencies, but there are hard questions which must be asked. If yesterday’s attack was not prevented, what reason is there to believe that attacks on less visible (and less well-guarded) targets can be prevented?

Conveniently, Will also ignores the fact that the CIA helped to make Osama bin Laden, the key suspect, into a powerful man by funding his operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Although I really should know better by now, this is a bit distressing to me. The Washington Post reports that 90% of those polled are “ready to risk war.” In that case, 90% of those polled would appear to be tragically short-sighted. Check back with them when their husbands and sons come home in metal boxes in the luggage compartment of an Air Force jet.

Worse, 66% responded that they would be “willing to give up some liberties” in order to combat terrorism. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. In order to “save” the Land of the Free, we will make it unfree. This is a Pyrrhic victory, plain and simple. It is not victory, but the end of America.

The bright spots in the commentary came today, and, perhaps predictably, right here. Lew Rockwell, Joseph Sobran, Gene Callahan, Bob Murphy, Ryan McMaken, John Keller and Harry Browne (via Antiwar.com) applied the timeless words of Ludwig von Mises from Liberalism, published in 1919: “everlasting peace can be achieved only by putting the liberal program into effect generally and holding to it constantly and consistently.”

What is “the liberal program?” Liberty and property. Peace and free trade. Rather than have the American government supply money and armaments to the Israeli government, so that yet more Palestinian civilians can be killed, we can work for peace by supplying money and armaments to no governments. Rather than bully the people of the world into behaving as desired by those in Washington, DC, we can allow peaceful cooperation through trade by ceasing to interfere in trade.

It is one thing to bring to justice those responsible for yesterday’s actions. Attempting to wage war on an unknown, unseen enemy, however, is a different matter. It was a colossal failure in Vietnam. If the United States attempts to wage such a war again, it will be worse. Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire in the streets to protest the war. They did not set fire to American streets in an effort to bring the war home to complacent Americans.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the London Times, has it right:

The message of yesterday’s incident is that, for all its horror, it does not and must not be allowed to matter. It is a human disaster, an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid. But it is not politically significant. It does not tilt the balance of world power one inch. It is not an act of war. America’s leadership of the West is not diminished by it. The cause of democracy is not damaged, unless we choose to let it be damaged.

Terrorists may blow up buildings, but they cannot suspend the Bill of Rights. Only we can suspend the Bill of Rights, and the rule of law enshrined in the Constitution, by overreacting to yesterday’s events. This is not the time to restrict our liberties yet further, nor is it the time to kill even more foreigners with American money, guns, and bombs.

Pride is not sufficient justification to sign the death sentence of perhaps millions of innocents. Prudence dictates that we proceed with great caution.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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