The Tragedy of Boromir

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by Gene Callahan

It is always distressing to find a good libertarian melting when the heat is turned up. There are so few articulate defenders of liberty in the world that we feel each loss keenly.

Vin Suprynowicz, a veteran libertarian writer, is a case in point. Suprynowicz has consistently taken bold stands against taxes, gun control, the drug war, asset forfeiture, and other violations of liberty.

But when the smoke from the terrorists attacks of September 11th cleared, Suprynowicz was found enthusiastically backing the warfare state. He fondly recalled how “We turned the major cities of Japan into smoking ruins and molten glass.” He called for making “Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Gaza – any [country] which can be demonstrated to have harbored, funded, or offered aid and comfort to Tuesday’s terrorists… into wildlife preserves.” (Yes, apparently even the infants in those countries deserve to die because someone, somewhere within their nation’s borders, aided a terrorist. But I’m not sure why the animals and plants are off the hook: Shouldn’t they die too?) In one column about the attacks, Suprynowicz mentions virility so often that I began to think he was going to try to defeat Al Qaeda with his sperm.

Apparently not wanting to leave any doubt that he had gone completely over the edge, Suprynowicz finishes up by endorsing the rape of conquered women and asking: “Do we have the nerve to drop nuclear bombs on every nation that has now declared ‘jihad’ against us?” (Mass slaughter from afar, with no risk to yourself: now there’s a “nervy,” courageous act, huh?)

What happened? The answer became clear upon reading Suprynowicz’s recent review of Lord of the Rings. I thought the review was pretty good, until I came to this passage:

Frodo's quest is not to deliver the One Ring to the right king, but rather to haul it back to the mountain of fire where it was forged in darkness, and destroy it. What's that? Not merely to reassign government power to its rightful heirs, but to reduce and limit it for all time?

Whoa, Vin! What did you misunderstand about “destroy it”? Frodo didn’t try to “reduce” or “limit” the use of the ring. So now we have the explanation for Suprynowicz’s support for the “war on terrorism”: He thinks Boromir was the hero of Lord of the Rings. It was Boromir, not Gandalf, Elrond, or Frodo, who thought that the ring could be used in a “limited” fashion. His failure unequivocally to say “No” to the power of the ring led to him to threaten Frodo with violence in order to acquire it, and ultimately led to Boromir’s death.

The one ring is the ring of domination over others. To destroy it is to renounce all attempts to use power to get one’s way. We may defend ourselves, of course, but we refuse to employ power to get others to do our bidding. For example, shooting down a Japanese fighter attacking Pearl Harbor is self-defense. Melting hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in order to get others to persuade their government to unconditionally surrender is domination.

Conservatives, supposed friends of liberty, are unable to throw the ring into the fire. Like Isildur, they hold back at the last moment – after all, they think, “We might be able to do some good things with that ring – maybe a little bit of national greatness or a nice program to teach virtue in the public schools!”

(The conservatives who try to claim Tolkein as one of their own would do well to re-read Tolkein’s Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkein denies the book is an allegory for World War II. If it had been, he notes, then the “Allies” would have certainly used the ring against Mordor, and both sides would have slaughtered hobbits en masse.)

Libertarians are faced with the problem that most of the means of defense are currently concentrated in state hands. In the midst of a crisis, asking people to first eliminate the state will hardly do. So how can we apply libertarian principles to such a situation? We must try to get the state to act according to the same guidelines we would apply to an individual facing a similar situation.

Let’s say that some criminal shoots a member of my family dead. As he flees my yard, he yells, “I’ll be back for the rest later.” I see him disappear into a nearby, privately-owned apartment building. I follow, gun in hand, and am stopped at the door by security. That fellow who just ran inside? It turns out he’s a resident, and I’m not allowed in to “visit” him without his permission.

What can I justly do about that situation? First of all, I might try talking to the people who own the building. I’d explain to them what had occurred. Logically enough, they’d ask me for some evidence. That would hardly seem to call for shooting them. But, apparently, when the Taliban asked for evidence before turning over bin Laden, that was an act of war. And bizzarely, when India began threatening Pakistan after the attack on India’s parliament, the U.S. told India that they should present Pakistan with evidence that the terrorists were supported from within Pakistan.

But perhaps the apartment owners aren’t negotiating in good faith. I present them with reasonable evidence, and they still don’t turn the guy over. At that point, I might have to tell them that my friends and I are going in anyway, and that they’d better stay out of the way. The analogy here should be obvious: the next step in American escalation, after presenting reasonable evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, should have been to tell the Taliban that we were going after Al Qaeda whether or not they helped. If the Taliban interfered, they would become valid targets, but as long as they stood aside, they’d be left alone. Again somewhat oddly, the U.S. seemed to focus its wrath on the Taliban, allowing most Al Qaeda members to escape the country.

There are some actions on my part we would never call just, however great my anguish and loss. Who would recommend that I be allowed to rape the women who live in the murderer’s apartment building in order to punish him? To turn the apartment building into a “nature preserve”? To launch a nuclear attack, wiping out the whole city the building is in? Somehow, despite his obvious libertarian credentials, Suprynowicz manages to completely miss the distinction between acting against an aggressor and acting against anyone who happens to be somewhere near the aggressor.

Now, I believe that Mr. Suprynowicz is motivated by a sincere desire to see that no more Americans suffer through events like those of September 11th. And Boromir was motivated by a sincere desire to defend Gondor against Mordor. But they have made the same mistake – the ring can’t be used in a “limited” way for good purposes. Once we begin to wield it, its power will seduce us, and soon we will be no different than those we fight.

I believe that libertarianism is essentially a spiritual commitment. Each of us is potentially a ring-bearer traveling the Middle Earth of the human spirit. The one ring resides in each of our souls and must be destroyed there. The journey is frightening. To complete it, we must travel to the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie, and up the very slope of Mount Doom. There is no guarantee that our enemies will not overtake us on the way. It might seem safer, more prudent, more “virile,” to turn the power of the ring on those enemies rather than risk destruction. But even plain, ordinary hobbits – like you and me – can change the world if our journey succeeds. 

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2002, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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