What Can We Do About Terrorism?


The late Harry Browne wrote three articles on terrorism, here collected into one, immediately after 911. At a time when other libertarians stayed silent or championed the regime, he – as usual – spoke truth to power.

The Ground Rules for Fighting Terrorism

This 3-part series will propose the actions I believe our government should take to fight terrorism.

Before looking at those proposals, however, we need to establish some ground rules.

Perfection Isn’t an Option

Rule #1: No solution is going to be perfect.

Our government has created ill will in many parts of the world. It has bullied smaller countries, imposed new governments upon people who didn’t want them, and demanded that other governments do what our government wants. It’s unrealistic to think that there’s anything that can be done now to quickly undo all the ill will.

I have been criticized for dwelling on what our government has done that led to the terrorist attacks. But if we don’t understand what provoked this, we can’t evaluate any response to it – and we can expect that the faulty policies will continue and provoke more such attacks against Americans.

Foreign Policy Is the Issue

Rule #2: It is American foreign policy that has provoked the attacks, not anything inherent in Muslim fundamentalism.

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world who don’t believe in killing non-Muslims. In fact, Muslims have been killed in Arab terrorist attacks, just as non-Muslims have.

In an interview conducted by John Miller for Esquire in February 1999, Osama bin Laden said: "This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands, or their honor. And my word to American journalists is not to ask why we did that but ask what their government has done that forced us to defend ourselves."

The fact that bin Laden uses bad means to achieve his ends doesn’t excuse our own government’s mistakes; nor does it justify our government doing the same things he does.

Bombing Doesn’t Work

Rule #3: Bombing foreign countries doesn’t end terrorism, it provokes it.

Our government has bombed Libya, Iraq, the Sudan, and Afghanistan, among other countries, supposedly to teach terrorists a lesson. But the bombings haven’t caused terrorists or foreign governments to change their policies.

This Is a Crime, Not War

Rule #4: The terrorist attacks are a criminal matter, not a war.

War is by definition an armed conflict between governments. No government has claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks, and no government has been so accused.

Calling the present situation a war is an excuse to impose wartime policies against Americans and foreigners – including violations of the Bill of Rights and killing foreign civilians.

Because the September attacks were a crime, the government’s job is to locate and bring to trial any perpetrators who didn’t die in the attacks. If some of them are located in foreign countries, our government should request extradition – not threaten to bomb the foreign country if we don’t get our way.

If not all the criminals are found and brought to trial, it doesn’t mean that bombing innocent people would have brought the criminals to justice.

Reverse Positions

Rule #5: If you think you or America is entitled to something, reverse the positions and see how you’d react.

If Afghanistan doesn’t turn bin Laden over to our government, ask yourself whether you’d want your government to turn you over to the Iranian government if it accused you of a crime.

If you don’t think that American troops in almost a hundred foreign countries are a source of resentment, ask yourself how you’d feel if Chinese troops were stationed in your city.

If you believe America has a right to bomb foreign countries for the actions of a few, ask yourself whether you’d want foreign governments to bomb your city because of something Bill Clinton did. (Haven’t we already established that the terrorists were wrong to kill innocent civilians because of their hatred for American foreign policy?)

Government Is Incompetent

Rule #6: Government does not do anything well – even those functions delegated to it by the Constitution.

The government has the constitutional authority to operate a Post Office. But if it’s urgent that a package get to the other side of America by tomorrow morning, will you trust the constitutional Post Office or will you use Federal Express?

Don’t assume that just because the government has the legal authority to do something that it will actually succeed. So be careful what you ask for.

What Is the Object?

Rule #7: There’s no way to eliminate all terrorism in the world.

Terrorists have existed since Biblical times. There will always be such criminals – people who will kill innocent bystanders to make a social or political statement, or to bring pressure on a government to change its policies.

Saying that terrorism will be eradicated is not only unrealistic, it is asinine. It indicates that the speaker shouldn’t be trusted in anything else he says.

What is realistic is the goal of reducing considerably the threat of terrorism against the U.S.

In my next two articles, I’ll present proposals for achieving this.

Do We Choose Death or Peace?

"All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do the wrong thing."

~ Lawrence Block, The Evil Men Do          

Americans have been sold a fantasy by their government and by the "experts" on television.

The fantasy is that our government will flex its muscles overseas, make demands, kill a lot of people, demonstrate that we don’t tolerate terrorism, "bring the terrorists to justice," and end terrorism forever.

But for decades, our government has been flexing its muscles overseas, making demands, killing people, and teaching terrorists a lesson. And what did it achieve?

It brought about the deaths of 3,000 Americans on September 11.

Those policies by our government have brought us to where there now are only two choices for the future. And you may not like either one of them.

The Choice for War

Choice #1 is to bomb Afghanistan "back to the stone age," and maybe Iraq, and maybe any other country our government accuses of harboring terrorists. (Except the U.S., of course, where many of the terrorists lived safely for several years.)

This choice won’t eliminate all the terrorists. It probably won’t eliminate any of them. But it will make the politicians feel good. And it will satisfy the understandable lust for vengeance that so many Americans feel right now.

But not only will foreigners die by the thousands, it will feed the desire for vengeance on the part of the terrorists – and inspire other people to help them. The result? . . . 

  • We will be attacked on planes, in subways, buildings, schools, sports arenas – in any place innocent Americans can be cornered like lab rats.

  • Our economy will sink further and further downward as people become more and more afraid to lead normal lives.

  • We will see Americans die from bombs, from biological warfare, from assassinations, and from causes we can’t even imagine now.

Our government will react by escalating the violence still further. And that will cause the terrorists to escalate their violence. And with every escalation, more of our friends and relatives will die – and more people around the world will come to hate America.

Choice #1 doesn’t lead to anything very pretty. It will be disastrous for America. But that’s where our politicians are taking us right now.

The Choice for Peace

Choice #2 is for our President to be a man and acknowledge to the world that our government has made some horrible mistakes in the past – but that our policy is changing.

He must tell the world that our government will no longer impose its will on places like Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia. He must say that we’re returning to the peaceful foreign policy that America followed for its first century – until President McKinley took the country into the Spanish-American War and down the road to empire.

Americans are loved all over the world for what they’ve done – producing low-cost food and medicines, great entertainment, and the kind of voluntary charity that only free and prosperous people can bestow.

At the same time, foreigners hate our government because it uses "foreign aid" and military muscle to impose its way upon the rest of the world.

Our politicians say that most of the world supports the American military campaign. But what they mean is that our government is bribing foreign governments to support the military campaign. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll revealed that individual human beings in 35 major countries oppose American military retaliation by better than 3 to 1.

If American leaders would call a halt to the violence, condemn the terrorist attack, and condemn the killing of innocent foreigners by previous U.S. administrations, there’s a very good chance the cycle of death and destruction could end immediately.

We’re at a Crossroads

Can I guarantee that Choice #2 will lead to peace? Of course not, but it is very likely to do so. And what terrorism remains will be relatively minor compared to the awful future we face now.

And I can assure you that Choice #1 will lead to the deaths of many more Americans – most likely, tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of Americans, in ugly and tragic ways.

It’s very possible the terrorists who weren’t killed in the September 11 attacks will never be caught – whether we pick Choice #1 or Choice #2. So let’s focus instead on ensuring that such a thing never happens again.

But first we must recognize that the fantasy our government is peddling now – of bringing peace by killing foreigners – is just that: a fantasy.

We have only two choices – death or peace. It’s unfortunate that it will take far more courage to choose peace.

Preventing Future Terrorism

Government’s role shouldn’t be to police the world – or even to win wars. Government’s role should be to keep us out of wars – to protect us from foreign enemies, not create them.

In fact the main reason most people tolerate high taxes and invasions of our liberty is because they hope the government will protect them from domestic criminals and foreign problems. And yet, despite a $2 trillion budget, our government protects us from neither.

A libertarian foreign policy would rest on a simple principle:

We’re always ready to defend ourselves, but we threaten no one.

Such a foreign policy should have four elements.

1. Non-Interference

Our government should never interfere in other countries’ disputes, never arm nor aid foreign governments, and never give terrorists a reason to pressure our government.

When the politicians drag us off to someone else’s war, they offer plenty of reasons. The reasons usually include: stopping the conflict from spreading, heading off the emergence of a new Hitler, protecting our allies, doing the moral thing, and ending violations of human rights.

But rarely do they come even close to achieving any of the goals.

Any American who wants to volunteer to fight for a foreign government or revolutionary movement, to negotiate its peace, or to send money to help it should be free to do so. (It is currently illegal for you to help a foreign government or revolutionary movement.) But our government should stay out of such battles.

2. No Foreign Aid or Military Assistance

The Constitution grants our government no authority to use your money for the support of foreign governments.

Not only is it unconstitutional, it is unfair by almost any standard. As Fred Smith pointed out, foreign aid taxes poor people in rich countries for the benefit of rich people in poor countries.

Foreign aid originally was justified as a way of arming countries against Communist aggression. But Cuba, China, and Vietnam all became Communist after receiving American money and weapons.

And so much money and military hardware have been given to Israel’s enemies that it allows the politicians to say we have to give massive aid to Israel to keep it from being destroyed.

Every American should be free to send money or weapons to any government in the world. But you shouldn’t be taxed for the benefit of any foreign government.

3. Security against Attack

How could the bad people of the world conquer America?

They’d have to pulverize American cities to the point that we submit to being occupied – or they’d have to threaten to do that.

In 1983 Ronald Reagan made the most sensible military suggestion of the past 50 years – that America should protect itself against missile attacks. Unfortunately, he gave the job to the Department of Defense – which is really the Post Office in fatigues. And so 18 years later we’re no closer to being protected than we were in 1983.

We should rely as little as possible on politics and bureaucracy to achieve anything. The government should simply post a reward – say, $25 billion – to go to the first private company that produces a functioning, fool-proof missile defense. With such an offer, we’d probably have a missile defense within five years.

Will that make us perfectly secure? Of course not. Nothing will.

But it will make us far safer than we are today and eliminate a principal excuse for meddling in other countries’ affairs.

4. Target the Aggressors, Not the Innocent

Even with a missile defense, suppose America truly were threatened by a foreign ruler.

A Libertarian President would target the aggressor himself. He wouldn’t order bombers to kill the aggressor’s innocent subjects.

He would warn the ruler that an actual attack would trigger the posting of a reward of, say, $100 million for the person who kills the ruler. Everyone would be eligible to collect the reward – including the ruler’s guards and wives.

This response would spare both innocent foreigners and innocent Americans. Only those who try for the reward would be at risk. Americans wouldn’t be drafted to fight and die invading a foreign country – nor taxed to pay for volunteers.

This isn’t a way to force dictators to change their spots or submit to U.S. dictation. It’s only a way to discourage a direct attack on America. If the dictator withdrew his threat, the U.S. would withdraw the reward.

With a libertarian foreign policy, it’s unlikely any foreign ruler would threaten us. So such a reward probably would never be posted. But if a foreign ruler were tempted to threaten us, the fear of assassination would be more of a deterrence than the threat to bomb his civilian subjects.

If you don’t believe assassination is a nice way to handle this, what’s the alternative? Would you rather kill thousands of innocent foreigners and innocent Americans?

Peace for All Time

When America can defend itself against missile attack, the politicians will lose their best excuse for butting into the affairs of other countries and making demands upon you.

And when our government no longer interferes in other countries with military adventures and foreign aid, foreign terrorists will have little reason to threaten your city.

If some foreign leader still tried to make trouble for America, we should target the leader for assassination, not target innocent civilians for bombing. But an American government that minded its own business and had a secure defense isn’t likely to need to resort to assassination.

The policies I’ve outlined are the only ones that will produce a strong national defense, instead of a strong national offense, and leave terrorists with no reason to attack us.

Once they’re in place, we must find a way to keep politicians away from loaded weapons forever.

Here’s a start – a proposed constitutional amendment:

Section 1. The United States shall be at war only after a declaration of war, naming the specific enemy nations, is approved by the President and by a two-thirds vote of the eligible members in both houses of Congress.

Section 2. The only members of the House of Representatives and the Senate eligible to vote on a declaration of war are those who are between the ages of 18 and 35, or who have children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren between those ages.

Section 3. In the absence of a Congressional declaration of war, the President may deploy the military to repel an invasion of United States territory, but may not deploy troops or engage in hostilities outside the United States.

Section 4. The United States shall enter into no treaty with any nation or organization if such treaty could oblige the United States to be at war without a declaration of war by Congress, and the United States shall not be bound to engage in war by any action taken by any organization of which they are a member.

Section 5. Except in time of war, as specified in Sections 1 and 2, the United States will provide no weapons or other resources to foreign governments, will engage in no military action outside the borders of the United States, and shall deploy no military personnel or weapons outside the boundaries of the United States except that at any one time up to one thousand members of the military may be outside the United States for no longer than thirty days.

Section 6. Upon any violation of this article by the President, Congress shall institute impeachment proceedings within 14 days.

Sections 3 and 5 don’t preclude a missile defense or any other kind of defense of this nation. It requires only that the President wait before attacking a foreign nation until a declaration of war has been issued. Even if some incapacity prevents Congress from making a declaration quickly, America could still defend itself. It just couldn’t attack anyone else.

War is too dangerous an enterprise to leave in the hands of people who routinely lie in their own self-interest.

I welcome any suggestions for making the Amendment more precise.

The late Harry Browne, the author of Why Government Doesn’t Work and many other books, was the Libertarian presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. See his website.

Harry Browne Archives