A Choice Too Far

The current debate over how our government should respond to the threat of terrorism is focused on the tradeoffs between security and liberty. This debate assumes that the government is capable of protecting us from terrorist attacks, but only if we surrender some of our rights in the process.

If this premise is indeed correct, most reasonable people would agree that it’s worth giving up some liberty in order to continue to enjoy the freedoms that remain. In the post-September 11 climate, with the specter of terrorism looming larger than ever, few demand absolute freedom of movement or privacy.

Obviously, it is worth giving up some liberty to fight terrorism and preserve the rest of our liberties. That’s not a choice so much as a recognition that we want to achieve the freest possible way of life within necessary constraints. But there is a point at which the abridgements of freedom that make it possible to fight terrorism and topple al Qaeda would also render that struggle pointless–to use the now-hackneyed phrase, a point at which the terrorist really would win. If the aim of this war is to ensure the survival of our free way of life, it makes no sense to kill that way of life in order to save it.

A Delicate Balance

Defining the problem is easy. Much harder is finding that balance between liberty and security. But before asking whether tradeoffs with liberty are “worth it,” hard questions must be answered: Is there a legitimate security goal? Can government actually accomplish that goal? What is the least restrictive means of achieving our desired objectives?

Of primary importance in balancing liberty and security, obviously, is avoiding security restrictions that will not, in fact, make us more safe. And most of the time, government just isn’t capable of delivering the goods. Increased government power will not protect us from terrorism, and may even make us more vulnerable to attack, as each new expansion of the security perimeter creates further opportunities for terrorists.

For example, take the long security screening lines that have become the bane of air travelers everywhere. An ambitious terrorist could easily detonate a bomb in the crowd, killing hundreds and scaring Americans away from air travel–possibly for good. Moving the lines further out of the airports simply recreates the problem elsewhere. And as security measures become more stringent, our freedom to travel is further encumbered, though we aren’t any safer than before.

In addition, the very costs of safety measures may make us less safe. As air travel becomes more time consuming and more expensive because of longer security procedures, many travelers may choose to drive instead. Even with a terrorist threat, flying remains safer than driving. More drivers on the roads will mean more accidents–so the ultimate result of security measures will be the deaths of travelers on the road. John Graham, the president’s director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, calls this phenomenon “statistical murder.”

If government’s most fundamental purpose is to protects its’ citizens from foreign aggressors, then September 11 was perhaps the single greatest incidence of government failure in our nation’s history. It is singularly ironic that the response to such a failure is to give government greater power and responsibility.

No government could possibly protect us from a world intent on doing us harm. The only way to solve the terrorist threat is to reduce the amount of harm that other state and non-state actors want to do to America.

Security Grab Bag

Instead, we are seeing our liberties eroded for reasons that have little to do with security. As Randolph Bourne reminded us at the turn of the century, “War is the health of the state.” In a post-September 11 world, every conceivable foreign and domestic interest is working to push its own narrow agenda–agendas that were in place prior to September 11–by repackaging it as a response to terrorism. Federalizing airport security, to give just one example, is more a capitulation to government labor unions than an effective safety protocol.

But at least airport security personnel are vaguely related to airport security–other requests have not been as subtle. As columnist Deroy Murdock reported, “The House voted 399 to 29 on November 1 to approve $1.7 billion for Army Corps of Engineers water projects, among other appropriations. With any luck, Americans caught downwind from a terrorist atomic blast someday may wash away radioactive fallout in a federally-built canal.”

Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation has detailed the spending spree that politicians have embarked upon under cover of responding to terrorism. “It’s an open grab bag, so let’s grab,” crowed Representative Jim Moran, Democrat of Virginia, of the $40 billion in federal rescue funds. New York Governor George Pataki has pushed for federal terrorist relief that includes a new high-speed train linking New York City with upstate Schenectady.

Robert Higgs provides one of the best explanations of how government tends to grow in crisis situations. In his book Crisis and Leviathan, he shows how each national crisis has led to an increase in the size and scope of government. When the crisis subsides, government does not return to its pre-crisis levels. This ratcheting-up effect has been in full display since September 11.

Government Growth

Given the tendency of government to grow in crisis situations, and special interests to push their agendas under the banner of fighting terrorism, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the means we’re employing to respond to recent threats are both the most effective and least restrictive possible.

Do the recently-passed security bills meet those tests? According to Dr. Jane Orient of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, an October version of the bill:

— Sought to expand wire-tapping authority to cover “ongoing criminal investigation[s]” rather than just “terrorism.”

— Defined terrorism to include “injury of Government property or contracts”–language broad enough to include Medicare fraud and upcoding.

— Included under the rubric of “domestic terrorism” acts “dangerous to human life that are a violation of criminal laws of the United States or of any State and that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” (emphasis added) or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” As Dr. Orient notes, the Boston Tea Party would have been considered domestic terrorism under this bill.

— Restricted habeas corpus for accused terrorists to a petition in the District of Columbia, which will only increase the length and expense of the process.

Further, the new anti-terrorism legislation includes provisions to make crimes related to terrorism eligible for asset forfeiture. Volumes have been written about government abuses of forfeiture laws in drug cases. Telling the state that it gets to “eat what it kills” is the best incentive for unwarranted takings. (A less restrictive means of achieving the same goal would be to deny terrorist organizations access to funds by simply freezing them, rather than confiscating them.)

And then there is the thorny issue of military tribunals. Attorney General John Ashcroft, referring to the capture of suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, asked in justification of the tribunals, “Are we supposed to read them their Miranda rights, hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a new cable network of OsamaTV or what have you, provide a worldwide platform from which propaganda can be developed?”

Of course, no one was suggesting any such thing. However, military tribunals–where a person can be sentenced to death, without appeal, by a secret vote of two out of three–is hardly the best or least restrictive way of handling the thorny issue of trying terrorists. Other means can be employed to protect intelligence secrets in a civilian trial, including closing the trial to media or sealing court records. The fallibility of even our civilian courts (as exemplified by Illinois Governor George Ryan’s moratorium on capital punishment), with all the protections they afford, should make us especially wary of losing procedural rights in criminal proceedings. And while the president’s decision to try alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui in a civilian court instead of before a military tribunal is encouraging, it raises a further question. If the administration doesn’t feel comfortable trying even an alleged September 11 co-conspirator before a military tribunal, why raise the specter of military justice–and all the legal complications that go along with it–at all?

Steering Clear

So what, then, is the best way to fight terrorism without endangering our liberty? The obvious answer is that we should avoid putting the nation into situations where Americans become targets.

It is important to distinguish between understanding the causes of terrorism and excusing the terrorists’ reprehensible actions. There has been very little real thoughtful discussion about what prompted the terrorist attacks. That large groups of people were willing to give up their lives points to a deeper motivation than simply resentment of Western wealth or cultural influence. In the minds of the terrorists and their supporters, Islam is under attack by the West, despite the president’s commendable efforts to define the war on terrorism as something other than a clash of civilizations. The only way to protect ourselves from men motivated by this doleful ideology is to craft better policies, which means understanding the mistakes we have made in the past.

When the Ayatollah Khomenei took American hostages from the Tehran embassy, Jimmy Carter called our past interventions in the Middle East “ancient history” as though it was unpatriotic to question whether we were needlessly involving ourselves in military campaigns abroad that encouraged attacks on Americans.

But the Iranian hostage crisis was merely the most dramatic episode in the tangled history of U.S.-Iranian relations. In the 1950s, Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized the oil fields that American and British companies were drilling. The U.S. essentially ousted Mossadegh and replaced him with the Shah, the deposed royal head of Iran. Our support for the Shah did not prevent his eventual overthrow by Khomenei.

Carter responded to the hostage crisis by arming Iraq and encouraging war, going so far as to feed false intelligence exaggerating Iran’s weakness, in the hope Khomenei would deal our hostages in exchange for lifting sanctions. That plan failed. Two years after Iraq finally defeated Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait–and we responded by arming Saudi Arabia.

It is a well-documented fact that domestic laws and regulations have unintended consequences that harm our economy and our liberty. It would be surreal to think that foreign policy would be any less complex, or any more likely to yield the intended results. The U.S. continually initiates new interventions to solve the bad consequences from each previous intervention, while at the same time sowing the seeds of the next failure and breeding tremendous resentment toward everything that this country stands for. The United States should be a beacon of hope in the Middle East and central Asia. Instead, our foreign policy mistakes have painted us as an enemy.

Prior to September 11, I would have argued that the U.S. should immediately withdraw from its involvement in the Middle East–troops, subsidized arms sales, foreign aid. Now, however, withdrawal would be a short-term disaster. We must finish the job we set for ourselves in the wake of the September 11 attacks. To do otherwise would only invite further attacks.

But in the long term, the only thing that can ensure American security is a return to the nation’s foundational stance of avoiding foreign entanglements. The founders understood that involvement in the affairs of other nations was likely to end badly. Bill Clinton couldn’t remake Haiti into a democracy despite all his efforts. The Middle East is an even more intractable problem.

To protect ourselves from terrorism and tyranny, we need to stop creating enemies though failed policies that antagonize a large portion of the world. Rather than trading our precious liberties for security–a futile task if there ever was one–we need to reassert the primacy of free enterprise, individual liberty, and personal responsibility in our domestic and foreign affairs. Only in this way will we preserve our distinctly American way of life and find ourselves safer in the world.

Post author