How To Think About 9/11

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Five Years After

by Roderick T. Long by Roderick T. Long

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Five years ago today, four planes were hijacked as part of a terrorist operation that handed the U.S. government one of the juiciest Higgs crises it has ever enjoyed. In the years since, the government has exploited this bonanza enthusiastically, launching wars abroad (wars that have long since claimed far more innocent lives than were lost on 9/11) and chopping away at civil liberties at home — all in response to an incident that U.S. government policies led to in the first place.

The fifth anniversary was marked by commemorations amounting to an apotheosis of the American State, with endless images of waving flags, and endless posturing. The 9/11 attacks were repeatedly referred to as “the worst terrorist attack in history” (conveniently forgetting Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden …). The president spoke earnestly about children who “still long for the daddies who will never cradle them in their arms” (as though having one’s father killed was something only suffered, never caused, by Americans) and about “fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations” (as though ending lives abroad and destroying freedom here were the natural way to do this). “America did not ask for this war,” he proclaimed innocently, as though the terrorists’ actions were something other than a response to, and in large part a mirror image of, U.S. foreign policy in the years prior to 9/11.

The ever-increasing hassling of airline passengers in the wake of 9/11 is far from being the worst of what the government has been doing. Hell, it’s probably not even 20th worst. But it’s an apt illustration of the dynamic of statism.

The 9/11 hijackers used sharp objects, so government security starts confiscating nail clippers. A later would-be airline bomber tries to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so passengers have to start taking off their shoes. Some bozoes in Britain may have talked about using airline bombs involving gels, so passengers are relieved of their hairspray and water bottles.

The pattern is clear: each time the terrorists use a new tactic, the government imposes a new restriction on the rest of us, a restriction designed to combat that specific tactic; so the terrorists switch to a different tactic, followed by new restrictions. If the terrorists switch to targeting trains and buses, more restrictions will be imposed on people riding trains and buses — until the terrorists switch to standing on overpasses and dropping bombs on cars as they pass.

By the logic of the situation, government restrictions will always increase. When restriction A makes one tactic more difficult, the terrorists switch to a different tactic, so the government imposes restriction B — but, of course, doesn’t remove restriction A. Given the massive variety of tactics for terrorists to switch among, this process has no natural endpoint short of total government control over every aspect of life. What Mises showed with regard to price controls applies equally here.

Part of what makes this process possible is the externalisation, the socialisation, of the costs of governmental decisions — the separation of the decision-makers from the burdens their decisions impose. When the cost of a new restriction is not borne by those who make it, the demand for such restrictions will be artificially high. If there were a competitive market in airline security, passengers could decide for themselves whether to choose a low-security or a high-security airline: the gels-or-no-gels decision would then get made by the people who bear the costs either way.

Besides this institutional perversity, another factor that helps to make the government-ratcheting-to-infinity dynamic possible is ideological: the tendency to imagine that passing a law magically brings about its desired result. This comes across clearly in the interviews that were broadcast with long lines of delayed passengers in the wake of the Gel Terror. u201CI’m willing to put up with the inconvenience in order to be safe,u201D they kept saying (or at least, that’s what the passengers the networks chose to broadcast kept saying). The problem is that this describes the trade-off inaccurately. Confiscating everybody’s liquids doesn’t move passengers from a dangerous condition to a safe one; at best it shifts their chances of being killed in a terrorist attack from already-very-low to very-slightly-lower. But when a government policy is advertised as Preventing the Gel Terror, it is seen as Preventing the Gel Terror; the ideological mystification that sets up the state as external to the social relations it attempts to govern enhances its perceived effectiveness far beyond its actual effectiveness.

The real lesson of 9/11 is, or should be, the ineffectiveness of state action. On 9/11, the danger came not from a well-armed, well-funded state military but from a small group of passengers armed with box-cutters; and the most effective defense (on flight 93) was likewise not a well-armed, well-funded state military but another small group of passengers armed with fists and hand luggage.

The state is incompetent to protect us. What it’s good at is, first, dragging us into crises, and second, using those crises as an excuse to expand its control over our lives, and over the lives of people around the globe — wading through blood in the process. But even this ability depends not on its inherent powers but on our own acquiescence.

Withdraw your consent!

Roderick T. Long [send him mail] is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University; Editor of the Journal of Libertarian Studies; President of the Molinari Institute; Senior Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute; and author of Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992, and maintains the website Praxeology.net, as well as the web journal Austro-Athenian Empire.

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