The State of the Union address by George W. Bush was a breath-taking flight of statist fancy. After some perfunctory talk about freedom and opportunity, and the need to cut spending (this from the biggest spender since LBJ!), what followed was a program of government planning to rival anything from the 1930s.
The President, a Republican no less, seems to believe that government should be telling us what kind of car to drive, what kind of education our kids should receive, how to cure disease in Africa and the Caribbean, how to liberate women the world over, how to fund technological innovation, and even how to “transform” our “souls” and lift the “hopes of all mankind” — all courtesy of the long-suffering taxpayer who is, once again, supposed to believe that the government can make better use of his money than he can.
The headlines after the speech called Bush’s agenda “conservative.” How arrogant is the modern state! If a prince in the high middle ages had delivered a speech like this, he would have been dismissed as a lunatic. A statesman in the 19th century who said such things would have easily identified as a would-be despot, and all the mechanisms then in place to restrain executive power would have been unleashed against him. In any case, all parties would have agreed that any head of state who spoke this way was a threat to freedom, not its defender.
What a transformation in American political culture we’ve witnessed in ten years. In 1993, President Clinton had been in office one year, and his plan to socialize American health care had hit the rocks. The Cold War had collapsed, the welfare state was widely seen as unworkable and wasteful, and the regulatory and tax state had begun to fray everyone’s nerves. The menace that is big government was easier to observe with the Soviets out of the way. The moment was ripe for a wide-spread revolt against the welfare-warfare state. Fueled by high-profile stories of government abuse, summed up in the words Ruby Ridge and Waco, grass-roots resistance movements were building: property-rights groups, 10th amendment supporters, secessionists, home-schoolers, militias, and much more.
The culmination was in reach in the Congressional elections of 1994, when we saw the closest thing to a political revolution in the postwar period. A new class of politicians was elected to Congress on a radical platform. They opposed not only the welfare state but also Clinton’s post-Cold War foreign policy of nation building. We saw glimmers of a consistent anti-statist ideology — a widespread distrust of the state and conviction that society and economy can manage without DC supervision — begin to bubble to the surface of American public life.
How that 1994 revolution was co-opted even before the Congress met the following January is a story for another time. What is truly striking in retrospect is the event that caused a massive shift in momentum. It was the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.
Though many questions are still unanswered about the attack, the reason for the bombing was clear. Timothy McVeigh developed a blood lust as a soldier in the first war on Iraq, and then turned his resulting callousness toward human life into an act of revenge for the killings at the Branch Davidian religious community in Waco, Texas.
The attempt to tar the anti-government movement began immediately. With Clinton as its cheerleader, the public sector and the media struck back against all rhetoric and language critical of government. Rather than dissecting the source of McVeigh’s personal drive (the Gulf War combined with Waco), the bombing was attributed to a more general cause: hatred and resentment of government. Therefore, it was said, anyone who raised concerns about the expansion of government power was guilty of hate, and hence bore some responsibility for the loss of life in Oklahoma City.
Of course the charge was preposterous. But it succeeded in intimidating people into silence for long enough for the federal government to institute new crackdowns on political dissent. All progress toward legislation that might have curbed government power was stopped, and new unconstitutional legislation was passed to permit every manner of spying and control, all in an effort to crack down on “hate” and domestic terrorism. In time, the dissidents, radicals, talk-radio rabble-rousers, and young turks in politics lost heart and backed off. The domestic side of the planning state had been saved.
As devastating as April 19, 1995, was to the libertarian agenda domestically, it turned out to be just a prelude to the meltdown after September 11, 2001, when hijackers got hold of passenger planes and used them as missiles against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The source this time was not domestic but foreign. As with McVeigh, the motivation was reprisal. The culprits couldn’t have been clearer about their issues: sanctions against Iraq, troops in Mecca, funding for settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, US foreign policy in general.
Looking at the details of the case, some easy lessons might have been drawn. The first is that airlines needed some clear means to protect themselves against hijacking, means which they had long been denied by federal law. Airlines were not permitted to defend themselves in the same way that banks, jewelry stores, and homeowners are allowed: through force of arms. Instead, the federal government had left airlines vulnerable to being stolen by anyone with box cutters and the will to die. Second, this was clearly an example of “blowback,” a reprisal against policies that generate hostility and increase the ranks of the terrorists. More broadly, the lesson might have been drawn that the federal government is not an efficient or effective guarantor of the public safety.
Instead of looking at the specifics of what happened and why, and what might have been done to prevent it, the federal government again went on the offensive, this time with George W. Bush, who had campaigned for a “humble” foreign policy, as leader. Little attempt was made to examine the motivations of the hijackers or the federal regulations that had allowed them to pull off their deed. Instead, the general lesson was dictated by Washington: They (the ubiquitous pronoun with a fill-in-the-blank antecedent) hate us (no distinction between Americans and their government) because we (again, no distinction) are good (a broad moral approval of anything and everything Americans or their government do).
As for the specifics, it was immediately decided that Osama bin Laden was the culprit, and, in something of a leap, that the country that was said to be harboring him, Afghanistan, should be attacked and its government overthrown, even though it was being run by an Islamic faction that the US had effectively brought to power in its guerilla war against the Soviets. The plot thickened then to include a large-scale global “War on Terror” directed not against those who plotted the attacks of September 11, but rather against any government that the US regarded as a political enemy. With Congress rubberstamping unprecedented license for the executive in international affairs, the administrators of the US warfare state had never been in a better position.
As with the Oklahoma bombing, an effort was made to pin the crime on anyone who holds opinions that the government does not like, and thus any questioning of US foreign policy was decried as objectively pro-terrorist. If you think there is something wrong with stationing troops all over the globe, or sanctions against free trade with Iraq that lead to the death of more than a million innocents, you are thereby exposed as an ally of the terrorists (the word terrorists now having replaced the name bin Laden, which oddly became unmentionable after the government failed to apprehend him). If you oppose widespread wiretaps, a new Department of Homeland Security, massive restrictions on travel, or dare to ask what might have motivated the hijackers, you are probably a traitor.
As for the political culture, what had survived of public skepticism toward government before 9-11 had been all but wiped out. Now the president can go on national television and announce a program that would have horrified any previous generation of Americans and expect the media to give him a free pass. Only a handful of elected officials dare stand up to him. As for Washington think tanks and lobbying groups, they have been mostly cowed by the government’s display of awesome power. In the same way that April 19, 1995, demolished the enemies of the domestic welfare state, September 11, 2001, ended up doing the same for the skeptics of the foreign warfare state.
That great enemy of freedom — the nationalist impulse of belligerence and chauvinism — was given new life. As the Caesars used love of country to bolster their power, in the same way George W. Bush used patriotism to build support for a massive expansion of the Leviathan state.
When we seek answers to the question of how the promise of 1993 turned into the disaster we see today, we cannot avoid looking at how the state used these two great incidents of politically motivated violence to crush its enemies and expand its power. In the end, then, who benefited from these acts against the state? The state itself. Is it any wonder that so many conspiracy theories circulate?
Speaking as a member of the remnant whose love of liberty has not budged an inch in ten years, I draw several lessons from this. First, political violence is a disaster for human liberty. Second, the state is capable of using any large-scale crisis, even those it itself causes or is guilty of failing to prevent, to intimidate its opponents and exploit the fears of the public. Third, the lovers of human liberty who refuse to bend the knee will probably always be a remnant.
This is not a case for despair. Just as these acts of political violence produced reactions by the state, the actions of the state are producing reactions of a different sort. Even as the state consolidates its power, a new and far more sophisticated generation is being forged. We find them among the peace protestors, small businessmen, homeschoolers, and political dissidents of all sorts. If most of the population has been cowed, we must remember that a remnant is watching and learning and waiting. Remember that the state is prone toward error, and the great error of the state this time around is overreach. Even now, the opponents of Bush’s plan for domestic and global hegemony are gathering strength.
Meanwhile, we must throw ourselves into the cause of civilization in every way we are still permitted. The American colonists knew that human liberty is a right, and that the desire for it burns in the heart of every person made in the image and likeness of the Author of liberty, and that no power on earth, no matter how many advances it may make in the short run, can extinguish the heart’s burning desire for truth, justice, and freedom. Especially in times of darkness, lift up your hearts, friends of peace and freedom, and uphold the light for all the peoples of the earth.