In some ways, it really isn't fair to raise the most extreme example of the pro-war faction of the libertarian movement, the orthodox Objectivists centered around Dr. Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute, because — judging from his pronouncements on the subject of the Iraq war — the man is clearly crazed, as his Ford Hall Forum speech, "America Versus Americans," given last year, makes all too abundantly clear. But it is really such a clear distillation of pure evil that I can't resist citing it: it is far too inviting a target.
Peikoff is sorely disappointed by this war, for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that his preferred target, Iran, is not yet in America's crosshairs. The war in Afghanistan was a letdown for him because we took care not to inflict civilian casualties. This, says Peikoff, is immoral: in Iraq, too, we are far too squeamish about innocent civilians. And I note that Peikoff emphasizes the word "innocent," even as he proclaims that it would be immoral not to condemn these innocents to death. When someone in the audience cried out in horror at this brazen display of naked evil, Peikoff interrupted his talk and imperiously demanded "please throw that man out." A far cry from Ayn Rand herself, who, during the 1930s, took to the stump for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, and, when confronted by hecklers — of which there were plenty — gave as good or better than she got. But the thuggish, hectoring Peikoff, whose high-pitched voice is in stark contrast to his stern admonitions, will have none of that.
Unlike the neocons, whose foreign policy he faithfully echoes, up to and including their iconization of Israel, Peikoff doesn't hide behind any beneficent-sounding slogans, like "exporting democracy" and implanting free markets and the rule of law. This, he claims, would be "altruism," the worst sin in the Objectivist theology — although why freedom, in the abstract, and not just one's own freedom, cannot be a value in and of itself is not at all clear to me. And the clear implication is that the Iraqis, like the Palestinians, are considered "savages" by Peikoff, who wouldn't appreciate such a gift in any case. No, what we must do, says Peikoff, is kill them — enemy soldiers and innocent civilians alike.
This same maniacal bloodthirstiness is expressed by Yaron Brook, the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, in a recent lecture on "The Morality of War," in which he outdoes Peikoff — and also Cuffy Meigs — in the complete thuggishness of his stance, advocating the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians in a total war of annihilation against the entire Middle East — except Israel, of course. When one timorous questioner raises the issue of how Mr. Brook reconciles such a view with the central doctrine of individualism, which is that all people are endowed with inalienable rights, Brook brushes this aside with an impatient wave of his hand and declares that all enemy civilians are legitimate targets. The reason is because your government represents you, whether you like it or not.
So much for the idea of individualism.
Yes, but what about a six-year-old child, asks the persistent — and clearly perplexed — questioner, who complains that he has trouble "internalizing" (his word) this monstrous doctrine of collective responsibility for the crimes of a ruling elite. What, he wants to know, has the child done to deserve such a fate? Brook hems, and haws, apparently reluctant to come right out and advocate child murder on a mass scale — and in the name of "individualism," yet! — but, in the end, he gathers up his courage, and, in a wavering voice that sounds eerily like Elmer Fudd, declares that six-year-old kids suffer all the time because of their parents' behavior. This instance — in his view is no different, he says, except in degree, reiterating his crazed view that when a government violates rights, all the citizens of that state are guilty, and can therefore be put to death.
How can people who claim to hold "rationality" as their highest value sink to such depths of depravity? The problem is that these people are living in a fantasy world of pure abstractions, in which everything is viewed through the lens of a Manichean struggle between Reason and Unreason, Modernity and Primitivism, the West and the Rest. The humanity and reality of anyone deemed "irrational" is defined out of existence, so that it's okay to torture and kill six-year-olds. Because, you see, they aren't really people. Not like us.
As I said, it is a bit unfair to hold up the Ayn Rand Institute and the Peikoff cult as an example of anything but pure psychopathology. Because they really have gone over the edge. But the influence of their West versus the Rest mentality runs deep in libertarian circles, due almost entirely, I would submit, to the influence of Ayn Rand, who dismissed Palestinians as subhuman "savages" and whose foreign policy views were based, not only any knowledge of specific areas of the world, but on highly stylized abstractions unconnected to any facts.
The same abstract, supposedly "philosophical" outlook is shared by the "soft" Objectivists, represented by the Objectivist Center, headed up by David Kelley. In a statement, the Center had the following to say:
"The attack was a deliberate assault not only on America’s civilian population and government, but on its culture of reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom, with all their derivatives such as science, technology, capitalism, progress, and toleration. In many public statements and in their choice of the World Trade Center as a target the terrorists have declared their hatred for this culture and their wish to destroy it."
The idea that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, sitting in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan, suddenly came upon a copy of the Bill of Rights, and were so outraged that they decided to put a big dent in the New York City skyline is absolute nonsense. The last time we had a problem with these people was back in the late eighteenth century, when the Barbary pirates decided to hijack American shipping. To imagine that, suddenly, the Muslim world has decided to go on a crusade against America because we're so rational, so tolerant, so wonderful, and so free is narcissism, pure and simple — and just plain wrong.
Listen to what Michael Scheuer, a currently serving CIA analyst who had served for years on the Agency's Al Qaeda task force, has to say about this Bushian-Objectivist view of 9/11:
The United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific U.S. government policies and actions. That hatred is concrete not abstract, martial not intellectual, and it will grow for the foreseeable future. While important voices in the United States claim the intent of US policy is misunderstood by Muslims, that Arabic satellite television deliberately distorts the policy, and that better public diplomacy is the remedy, they are wrong. America is hated and attacked because Muslims believe they know precisely what the United States is doing in the Islamic world. They know partly because of bin Laden's words, partly because of satellite television, but mostly because of the tangible reality of US policy. We are at war with an Al-Qaeda-led worldwide Islamist insurgency because of and to defend those policies, and not, as President Bush mistakenly has said, "to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world.
Bin Laden's credibility and stature in the eyes of Muslims is due to his success in persuading them that they must fight a defensive jihad against those intent on eradicating Islam and conquering the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq has certainly done much to convince any skeptics that he has a point, but many did not need much convincing, as our record in that part of the world already provided bin Laden with plenty of grist for his mill. As anyone who examines what bin Laden and his allies have actually said — and Scheuer’s recent book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, is a rich source of information on this subject — the Islamists are up in arms over five issues of major import:
- US support for Israel that keeps Palestinians in the Israelis’ thrall
- US and other Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula
- US support for Russia, India, and China against their Muslim militants
- US pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low
- US support for apostate, corrupt, and often tyrannical Muslim governments
In short: They are over here, because we are over there.
Chalmers Johnson, the foreign policy analyst, has popularized the concept of "blowback" — the unintended consequences of government action in the international arena. It is an idea that ought to be all too familiar to libertarians, who are second to none in tracing the origins of these consequences when it comes to government intervention in domestic affairs. We face a worldwide insurgency directed at the American homeland as a direct consequence of our interventionist foreign policy.
Its roots, however, are not in abstractions, such as the terrorists' alleged hatred of our way of life, but in blood-and-flesh realities such as the March 8, 1985 car bomb that went off in a Beirut suburb. The intended target, a radical Muslim leader, was shaken but left alive. Eighty others, mostly women and children, were killed, and 200 were wounded. The bombing, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, was the work of CIA director William Casey, who had enlisted the cooperation of the Saudis. Retribution was not long in coming.
A few months later, Arab terrorists took over a TWA flight from Athens and executed a US Navy seaman on board, as they railed that it was payback time for the Beirut bombing. One hijacker kept yelling "New Jersey! New Jersey!" as terrified passengers cowered in their seats. He was talking about the battleship New Jersey, which had rained down death and, yes, terror in the form of 2000-pound shells on Beirut the previous year.
Scheuer deals, not in abstractions, but in specifics: not in "philosophy," but in empirical, verifiable facts. In order to discover the truth about what is going on in the world, it is necessary know what you are talking about: you can't derive the answers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the how to defeat Al Qaeda, or what position to take on the Iraq war, from knowing that "A is A." The daffy method of Peikoff, of Kelley, and of all too many libertarians leads to support for militarism, empire-building, and the defeat of the very values they claim to uphold.
The abstractionists are taking the easy way out: all they have to do is repeat a few rote formulas, insert a few words here and there, and — bingo — they have a glib explanation, an instant position, all worked out in advance. That's a lot easier than taking a reality-based approach: it means you don't have to do any research, you don't have to read the newspapers (except the editorial page) and you don't have to educate others, except to inculcate in them the same formulas you have memorized for the occasion.
The policy of global interventionism has a long and complex and bloody history, and it must be understood in order to see the present horror we face in context. Osama bin Laden did not just pop up out of nowhere: he was, in a sense, our own creation. We funded him, supported him, armed him in order to "liberate" Afghanistan from the Red Army — and when he turned on us, like a "tame" cobra gone rogue, we had to "liberate" Afghanistan again — essentially undoing the previous "liberation."
Antiwar.com, the popular website of which I am editorial director, exists to educate Americans and readers worldwide. What is the War Party up to? Where will they strike next? What is the history of the latest target of our campaign of "liberation"? Like our sister site, LewRockwell.com, we debunk the lies, expose the frauds, and take a magnifying lens to the elaborate deceptions that rationalize America's policy of perpetual war. And we do it because this is the central issue of our times. If we take the road to Empire, then the idea of limited government is doomed: the crushing weight of confiscatory taxation will smother our old republic, and stamp out the last vestiges of America's libertarian legacy.
Every war is a test, and, with this war we face our greatest test. Most libertarians, I am glad to say, are rising to the occasion: others swept along by the rising tide of militarism and statism, enthralled by the rhetoric of warmongering demagogues, blinded by narcissism and hubris — are falling by the wayside. The American libertarian movement has gone full circle: we have come, in the end, to a replication of our beginnings. The modern libertarian movement was born in the shadow of the Vietnam war, and the split with the neocon-ized conservative movement over the question of the war and civil liberties. Only this time, we are bigger, stronger, more confident: we have not forgotten our history. Now let us prove ourselves worthy of it.
October 12, 2004