When our lives are filled with conflict and contradiction, events have a way of producing a kind of unproductive energy that is slow to get worked out of our system. Slavery, the despoliation of American Indians, and the Civil War, are the more apparent examples of unresolved disorders that continue to disquiet us, like the symptoms of a chronic illness. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers last year appears to be another expression of this tendency, the entropic consequences of which continue to agitate beneath the surface of our daily lives.
The study of “chaos” helps us to better understand how variability and uncertainty make it impossible to predict outcomes of complex systems over any extended period of time. Such unpredictability has given rise to the concept of the “unintended consequences” of our actions. Because there is no such thing as “cost-free” behavior, and because it is impossible — within a complex system — to anticipate all the effects of our conduct, the rationale for political planning and control of societies is collapsing.
At its base, “government” has long been defined as an institution enjoying a monopoly on the use of force within a given geographic territory. The hubris that animates all who yearn for authority over their neighbors has rarely allowed for any questioning of this concept. Accordingly, the state has — particularly in the 20th century — engaged in efforts to continually expand upon the tools of death, destruction, and control with which to forcefully compel others to its will.
In furtherance of such ends, powerful nation-states have expended billions of dollars in research and development funds to create “weapons of mass destruction” such as nuclear bombs, ICBMs, plastic explosives, and chemical and biological agents designed to kill men, women, and children by the millions! When it became evident to the institutional interests who control the apparatus of the state that such weaponry could also destroy buildings, airports, roads and bridges, factories, and other physical facilities, work was completed on a neutron bomb, which permitted the state to only destroy human beings, while leaving structures intact!
Like our ancestors who defended slavery or the annihilation of Indian tribes, most of us have been content to allow the state to continue functioning on the basis of its arrogant assumptions. Though we would have mortgaged our homes to pay for the therapeutic couch-time needed by any of our children who announced their intentions to engage in such deadly activities for their own ends, most of us pipped nary a squeak when the state undertook such programs.
Perhaps we shared with our political masters the implicit assumption that such destructive powers could be entrusted to their hands because we had been conditioned in the view that the state was not only a necessity, but an expression of civic virtue. If our political leaders were not philosopher kings, were they not, at least, the “best and the brightest” that a free, productive, and peace-loving people could bring to the surface as their “representatives?” Our leaders would never use such tools of mass destruction for any improper purpose, would they?
We seemed to share with our political masters the belief that (a) such weaponry would only be available to political systems, and,(b) institutional interests, desirous of preserving the status quo, would exert sufficient pressures on the state to make certain that the use of these weapons would remain limited. Until recently, in other words, we enjoyed the illusion that the control over such weapons would be confined to state authorities, who would use them (or not) in the conduct of their games of war that could be begun or ended whenever institutional interests decided to do so.
When the state began exercising its monopoly of force on men, women, and children in foreign lands, we went along with the announced pretense that it was only engaged in “peacekeeping” activities; or that dropping bombs on distant villages was a “humanitarian” undertaking. When the state undertook the same campaign in America — such as at Waco — most of us wrote off the wholesale butchery as an unfortunate consequence of maintaining “law and order,” or found comfort in believing that David Koresh was a “kook.”
Had we spent more time in government schools studying physics, and less time learning to recite inane civics class catechisms, we would have become familiar with Newton’s “third law of motion” (i.e., for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). Such an awareness might have been a tip-off that the acts of violence in such disparate parts of the world as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Chechnya, Indonesia, and the World Trade Center, have their origins in how governments use their monopolies on the use of force against others. While apologists for statism persist in their lies that the WTC attacks were but the products of cultural envy, a more realistic explanation can be found on every children’s playground in the world: “if you push me, I’ll push you back.”
Until recently, those who have been pushed around by the prevailing power structures have had to content themselves with token forms of resistance: demonstrations or throwing rocks at tanks. All of that has changed. On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists brought to the attention of the world a new “weapon of mass destruction,” namely, the box-cutter knife. But it didn’t take long for most of us to realize that virtually anything could be considered a “weapon of mass destruction,” and quickly knitting needles, fingernail clippers, and hatpins were confiscated at airports. But the list need not end there: what about trouser belts, scarves, or even a strong pair of hands? Indeed, what about any item that is capable of placing any degree of power in the hands of individuals?
This was only the beginning of a new rage of state-induced, media-encouraged insecurity: terrorists might have access to nuclear weapons, plastic explosives, and biological or chemical agents, and they could unleash these at any time and in any place. It was considered impolite to ask where such weapons had come from in the first place; whose research and development funds created the means for destroying life on this planet. Worse yet: virtually no one was prepared to think about (and certainly not to discuss in public) the implications all of this had for the future of the state.
If government is an institution that enjoys a monopoly on the use of force, the events of 9/11 have shown — to any who are not afraid to look — that state systems, throughout the world, have lost this monopoly. When the decision to start World War III is no longer the prerogative of presidents, prime ministers, and chairmen, but can be made by a dozen or so angry men; when the obliteration of a city can be accomplished by one man with an atomic suitcase, or a vial containing a biological agent that can be dumped into a water supply, it is time for us to acknowledge that the state has reached a terminal state!
The decentralization of destructive power, in other words, is producing a decentralization of political power, a relationship that helps to explain the importance of a well-armed public to the maintenance of liberty. This centrifugal process is also being facilitated through the development of the computer and the Internet, each of which was created by the state in order to further centralize information and, thus, control over the minds of its citizenry. But just as the state was unable to foresee the decentralization of its weapons of mass destruction, it also failed to anticipate the diffusion of information wrought by the Internet.
The statists know — even if most of us have not yet figured it out — what is implicit in the state’s loss of domination in these areas. When the state loses its monopoly on the use of force, as well as its capacity to propagandize the popular mind without fear of competition from alternative sources of information, the continuation of its deadly games is pretty much in doubt.
Like Uncle Louie, whose lifetime of excess with bourbon has brought him to his deathbed, the laws of causality may finally have caught up with the state. The statists are, I believe, fully aware of their terminal condition. What else would account for conservatives — who, by definition, have been defenders of established institutions, the status quo — becoming the “founding fathers” of a domestic and international police state? Out of desperation born of the realization that the state has lost its monopoly on the use of force, the conservatives have devoted themselves to the creation of ever-more-Draconian statist measures. If other nations will not kowtow to “American interests” — such as by “voluntarily” disarming themselves upon command from Washington — they shall be attacked.
Nor are Americans, themselves, immune from such despotic practices. In the “Homeland Security” measure that President Bush is feverishly promoting we see a reflection of the underlying premise of every oppressive regime: the real “enemy” is to be found at home, in the will of those who refuse to be subjugated to the unfettered will of tyrants. If the unintended consequences of complexity are diluting political authority, the state is likely to react by intensifying the levels of force against its own people. Those who raise any principled objections to such tactics might find themselves whisked away to an American concentration camp in Cuba, there to await some untold fate at some uncertain time. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of a futuristic society in which people were charged with “suspicion of intent to conspire.” That future is now!
Our thinking has created this Frankenstein monster that now threatens to destroy its creator. Those who cheered on the state as it developed its ever-more-destructive weapons systems did not foresee — anymore than did the statists — that persons and groups on the receiving end of state violence might one day get their hands on such tools and use them for their purposes. But that is where we are: the knowledge that produced these weapons cannot be unlearned. But we can unlearn the thinking that led us to believe in the need for the state in the first place. As we look around the world at the slaughterhouse we have created, perhaps some primal level of intelligence will be awakened within each of us, and we shall then put down our blood-stained flags and walk away from our crumbling citadels.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.