In the Aftermath of Slaughter

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About 90 minutes from my home is the Civil War battlefield at Sharpsburg, Maryland, where desperate Union and Confederate troops massacred each other at a place called Antietam Creek. At the end of the day, September 17, 1862, 4,700 men were dead and scores more wounded. Until September 11, 2001, it was the greatest loss of life ever by Americans in one day.

We don’t know yet how many Americans were murdered Tuesday in terrorist attacks, but it seems that the politicians are already at work murdering what is left of the English language. At a time when perspective and understanding are needed, what we receive is empty rhetoric.

While the horrible battle at Sharpsburg was a stalemate, the Confederates under Robert E. Lee retreated and that was enough for Lincoln to call it a Union victory. So that the slaughtered Americans would not have "died in vain," Lincoln used the battle as a springboard to his announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation four months later. Today, we hear demands from U.S. politicians not to let the dead to have died "in vain." Like Lincoln, who used that battle to justify continuing the war, our "leaders" will demand even more power and the last vestiges of our freedom in order to exact revenge against who knows whom.

While I agree that the U.S. Government has been meddling too many times for too long in the affairs of too many nations, there can be no justification for what was perpetrated Tuesday. The U.S. Government has done its share of evil, but we should also not forget that the governments of those nations that helped plan this attack are also evil and oppressive, and the people who live under their yoke are not by any means free. Our meddling cannot make them any more free (make them less free, perhaps), but the murder of innocents is simply reprehensible.

That being said, as I listened to news reports of this slaughter and destruction, I could not help but remember the U.S. bombing of a passenger train in Serbia three years ago, or the slamming of U.S. missiles into hospitals, marketplaces, and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Those people also were innocents, and they had friends and family just as those who perished in the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

For that matter, those who died at Waco and elsewhere at the hands of the U.S. Government also had friends and loved ones, yet the same politicians who call today for war on somebody were the same one to endorse the wholesale killing of innocents at our hands, calling it "collateral damage." If we cannot understand the grief of those who died at official U.S. hands, we cannot fully understand the horrible events of September 11.

Those things being said, we already hear President George W. Bush call for emergency military money, and Congress will obey. No doubt, we will also hear renewed calls for missile defenses even though those who perpetrated this outrage did so with knives, box cutters, and our own passenger jets. Not a single military weapon was used, yet it is doubtful that much more damage could have been inflicted in a true military strike.

My gut reaction when I saw the carnage and saw pictures of Palestinians and Egyptians celebrating was to mutter, "Kill them all." Yet, those people have been muttering the same things about us for many years. We have killed many more of them than they have killed of us.

Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan wrote that government creates crises, then seizes even more power in order to deal with the crises it has caused. This latest crisis, like so many others, is ultimately a product of our government’s actions. We have bombed others, imposed crippling economic sanctions on poor nations, and imposed our will upon people who do not desire our presence, yet we are shocked, SHOCKED when others fight back.

How do we best express our grief at these horrible events? We do not do like the young man on a bicycle in Washington, D.C., who taunted a group of people, screaming that this was a wonderful turn of events. Nor do we emulate Congress and every chest beater demanding that we bomb Baghdad or Kabul or the West Bank of Palestine.

I believe that we best express our grief and sorrow by identifying not only with our own but also with those who have been our victims. We think of those who die daily in Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Colombia (in the drug war) and the victims and survivors of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo who were slaughtered wholesale by U.S. bombers not because those places were useful military targets but because our government wanted to show others just how capable of killing we really were.

To do so, of course, would require a rethinking of how we do business with the rest of the world. In the wake of Tuesday’s slaughter, I doubt that Washington — or even much of the American public — is capable of doing such, at least in the short run.

At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the ruler of the city of Verona tells the Capulet and Montague families that "All are punished." Indeed, as we have seen in graphic detail, all have been punished, and I fear that the bloodletting has only begun.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

© 2001

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