The day after the 9/11 attacks, WorldNetDaily published “When Will We Learn?”, an article written by two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne in which he asserted that the attacks were blowback for American imperialism, would be used to justify further restrictions on freedom, and the resulting hysteria would lead to support for unwise & unjust retaliation. It turned into a series of four total articles spanning just over a week following the attacks, with the three follow-ups consisting of Browne responding to the avalanche of criticism & feedback his initial article set off. Several libertarian sites have republished Browne’s first article over the years, few (if any) have republished his follow-ups. Now, twenty years to the day after the initial posting of what many have called “one of the bravest articles ever written”, the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus is republishing the entire series for posterity.
Published September 12, 2001 at 1:00am
The terrorist attacks against America comprise a horrible tragedy. But they shouldn’t be a surprise.
It is well known that in war, the first casualty is truth – that during any war truth is forsaken for propaganda. But sanity was a prior casualty: it was the loss of sanity that led to war in the first place.
Our foreign policy has been insane for decades. It was only a matter of time until Americans would have to suffer personally for it. It is a terrible tragedy of life that the innocent so often have to suffer for the sins of the guilty.
When will we learn that we can’t allow our politicians to bully the world without someone bullying back eventually?
President Bush has authorized continued bombing of innocent people in Iraq. President Clinton bombed innocent people in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Serbia. President Bush, senior, invaded Iraq and Panama. President Reagan bombed innocent people in Libya and invaded Grenada. And on and on it goes.
Did we think the people who lost their families and friends and property in all that destruction would love America for what happened?
When will we learn that violence always begets violence?
Supposedly, Reagan bombed Libya to teach Muammar al-Gadhafi a lesson about terrorism. But shortly thereafter a PanAm plane was destroyed over Scotland, and our government is convinced it was Libyans who did it.
When will we learn that “teaching someone a lesson” never teaches anything but resentment – that it only inspires the recipient to greater acts of defiance.
How many times on Tuesday did we hear someone describe the terrorist attacks as “cowardly acts”? But as misguided and despicable as they were, they were anything but cowardly. The people who committed them knowingly gave their lives for whatever stupid beliefs they held.
But what about the American presidents who order bombings of innocent people – while the presidents remain completely insulated from any danger? What would you call their acts?
When will we learn that forsaking truth and reason in the heat of battle almost always assures that we will lose the battle?
Losing our last freedoms
And now, as sure as night follows day, we will be told we must give up more of our freedoms to avenge what never should have happened in the first place.
When will we learn that it makes no sense to give up our freedoms in the name of freedom?
What to do?
What should be done?
First of all, stop the hysteria. Stand back and ask how this could have happened. Ask how a prosperous country isolated by two oceans could have so embroiled itself in other people’s business that someone would want to do us harm. Even sitting in the middle of Europe, Switzerland isn’t beset by terrorist attacks, because the Swiss mind their own business.
Second, resolve that we won’t let our leaders use this occasion to commit their own terrorist acts upon more innocent people, foreign and domestic, that will inspire more terrorist attacks in the future.
Third, find a way, with enforceable constitutional limits, to prevent our leaders from ever again provoking this kind of anger against America.
There are those who will say this article is unpatriotic and un-American – that this is not a time to question our country or our leaders.
When will we learn that without freedom and sanity, there is no reason to be patriotic?
Published September 14, 2001 at 1:00am
My article last Tuesday “When Will We Learn?” provoked more controversy than anything I’ve ever written. In case there was any misunderstanding, here is what I believe:
- The terrorist attack was a horrible tragedy and I feel enormous sympathy for those who were personally affected by it. I wrote my article hoping that, however unlikely, it might be possible to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
- I hope anyone responsible for the attack who didn’t die in it will be found, tried, and punished appropriately.
- Terrorism by definition is the killing of innocent people in order to bring about some political or social change.
- Terrorism may cause some changes in the short term, but it never leads to a conclusive victory, because it provokes a never-ending cycle of escalating violence on both sides.
- The U.S. government has engaged in acts of terrorism over the past few decades – bombing and starving innocent people in foreign countries, supposedly to force their leaders to make changes the U.S. government desires. Terrorism doesn’t become “policing” or “justice” merely because it is our government doing it.
- All Iraqis are not Saddam Hussein; all Serbs aren’t Slobodan Milosevic; all Afghanis (or Saudis) are not Osama Bin Laden.
- Killing innocent people in retaliation for the sins of other people isn’t justice – it is terrorism. The terrorists were wrong to kill Americans to satisfy their grievances against American foreign policy. And to react to them by killing innocent foreigners would also be terrorism.
- You can’t make productive decisions at a time when your mind is clouded by anger, resentment, or thoughts of revenge.
The reactions I’ve received have been roughly 50-50 regarding my position. Here are some of the objections people have made against my position.
“This was a bad time for you to say, ‘I told you so’ in such a poor fashion.”
I’m not saying, “I told you so.” I’m trying to stop future madness – against Americans and against foreigners. Should I wait until after our military invades Afghanistan before speaking out?
“Now, of all times, is the time when we must support one another for the best.”
That doesn’t mean supporting the ill-conceived policies that led to this event.
“It is time for our people to pull together against these sick terrorists. We could use your help too.”
To do what? Encourage our politicians to continue doing the very things that led to this? You’re demonstrating why I had to write the article. If we stand behind our leaders now, letting them speak for us “as one voice,” nothing will change. We will continue to see more acts by our government that will lead to more terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“Don’t tell me to ‘stop the hysteria.’ This event merits hysteria, anger, sadness, and fear. I will be hysterical because it is the only thing I can do to show my countrymen that I mourn them.”
Hysteria creates lynch mobs and more killing of innocent people. Grief, anger, and resentment are all natural reactions to what happened. But letting your emotions make bad decisions is not a productive reaction.
“What’s done is done and now we’re in the middle of this terrible mess. Maybe you’re right, maybe we should not be surprised that something was bound to happen. But, now what? We don’t need people criticizing our past mistakes at this moment. Save that for later. Right now we need immediate action.”
If we don’t understand the past mistakes, the “immediate action” taken will simply repeat those mistakes. Is that what you want?
“You have lost my support by your political posturing in a time of crisis.”
Political posturing? Do you really think I expected to receive adulation for writing an article that goes so sharply against current public opinion?
“It sickens me that you would use this tragedy this way.”
In what way? To try to stop it from happening again? To try to stop our politicians from running off and bombing more innocent people? As a normally public voice, should I sit quietly by and not point out that our politicians are continually putting innocent Americans in harm’s way by terrorizing innocent foreigners?
I understand your outrage and emotional reaction, but we must hold our own politicians accountable for the anger they are causing around the world with their careless, dangerous, show-off tactics.
“Please leave the United States. You do not deserve to remain here with this type of un-American diatribe which only serves to support the voices of moderation.”
I thought this is supposed to be a free country in which everyone was allowed to speak his mind. I guess I misunderstood. I didn’t realize it was a crime to try to stop a lynching.
The Libertarian Party
“Using this event as a means to bolster the Libertarian Party is despicable and it is disgusting.”
It appears that standing up for what one believes isn’t a way to bolster the popularity of the Libertarian Party. But that’s what Libertarians often do – especially when no one else will.
“You have forever ended any chance of my supporting the Libertarian Party, unless you resign from any and all leadership positions immediately.”
You’ll be pleased to know I don’t hold any leadership position in the Libertarian Party. I am a private citizen who grieves for what the politicians have done to my country and to the innocents who die in America and abroad. Many Libertarians disagree with my position, so you shouldn’t judge the Libertarian Party by me.
“We must deter the next attack with the fiery sword of vengeance, not some limp, liberal, why-can’t-we-be-let-alone weak response.”
We have done that already – bombing Libya, invading Panama, bombing a perfume factory in the Sudan, bombing Afghanistan. Did those “fiery sword(s) of vengeance” deter the next attack?
“Bomb Kabul into oblivion.”
As I recall, Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, which is run by the same “Freedom Fighters” our own government gave so much money and military hardware to in the 1980s. Before we run off bombing innocent people (or is every Afghani guilty of the World Trade Center bombing?), shouldn’t we question the American foreign policy that put those people in power in Afghanistan? Or is it bad timing to bring that up now?
“Once you know the face of your enemy, destroy him completely and you will never need to fight him again. America is at war. To win a war it must be fought in totality.”
A war against whom? Against people like the one million Iraqis who have died of starvation or disease because of the American blockade? Against people like the innocents who died in the bombings of the Sudan and Afghanistan?
Every time our leaders say, “We must make sure this will never happen again,” they do something to assure that it will happen again. I wrote my article in the vain hope it might help people to think twice before demanding the wrong action.
“Do you think these terrorists can really be reasoned with?”
I didn’t say they could. I said we shouldn’t give them legitimate reasons to direct their misguided zeal at the U.S.
“Don’t you think a soft response would just encourage more terrorism?”
I hope the people who were involved are found, tried, and punished. I don’t consider that a soft response. But I don’t want any more innocent people hurt – Americans or foreigners.
“This is not the time to run and bury our heads in the sand. Someone has to stand up to bullies wherever they are! Like the Nazis; the only good Religious Fundamentalist is one that is in heaven! Not only is it a time for the U.S. to take action but to OCCUPY ALL ARAB LANDS, since their Religious leaders ‘preach’ the Jihad.”
Did I mention that there was a lot of hysteria and a lynch-mob sentiment right now?
“You totally lost your credibility with me when you suggest that any military response will basically serve no purpose.”
The U.S. went to Vietnam to stop the Communist dominos from falling, and the entire region fell to the communists. The U.S. invaded Panama, supposedly to end drug-dealing there, and today Panama is more overrun with the drug trade than ever. After years of arming Saddam Hussein, the U.S. invaded Iraq to get rid of him, but he is still held up as a terrible threat to the world. The U.S. bombed Libya to teach terrorists a lesson; so the terrorists hijacked the Pan American plane over Scotland.
Perhaps you could give me an example of where U.S. military response in the past several decades has achieved any purpose.
Obviously, the individuals involved in the attacks should be found, prosecuted, and punished. But going to war against another country or some vague conspiracy will solve no more than the examples I just gave.
“At this time, past wrongful deeds committed by Americans should not play a role in our reaction to this horrible event. We have to retaliate once we confirm who is responsible. Otherwise, even more horrific events are sure to occur in the future.”
We have retaliated in the past, and still horrific events followed. What I’m hoping for is a different kind of reaction this time – one that will actually change American policy so that we never again suffer what happened this week.
Corrections & Caution
“I would like to point out that the airliner destroyed over Scotland was a PanAm plane, not TWA.”
You are right. In my haste to get the article finished, I was careless in relying on my imperfect memory and not looking it up.
“I put my Harry Browne for President stickers back up in my dorm room yesterday.”
Please, take them down before you get lynched.
More to come.
Published September 17, 2001 at 1:00am
In my last commentary, I pointed out that killing innocent people is terrorism, no matter who does it – free-lance terrorists, an international conspiracy, a foreign government, or our government.
It would be wrong for our government to respond to last week’s tragedy by committing further acts of terrorism against innocent foreign people.
Find the terrorist conspirators and punish them – yes. Bomb innocent people – no.
Friday I commented on some of the common themes we’re hearing now to justify rash action by our government against foreign countries. Here are some more of what I’ve received in my mail:
“I don’t mind giving up some more of my liberty in order to put a stop to these despicable acts.”
I understand your sentiments, but I respectfully disagree with them – for two reasons:
First, you have no idea what liberties are going to be taken from you. And whatever they are, you can have no expectation of ever getting them back – even if the underlying problem goes away completely. For just one obvious example, income tax withholding was instituted as a war measure in 1942, and it is still with us today.
Second, taking away our liberties rarely achieves the goals used to justify the new oppression. Because of the drug war, our government now rummages through your bank’s records, looking for suspicious transactions you may have entered into; you and your property can be searched and seized without a warrant, without being convicted of anything, without even being accused of anything. And yet drugs are as widespread today as when these intrusions were put in place.
It’s easy to say you support intrusions that you believe aren’t likely to affect you personally. But I can assure you that any invasion of civil liberties will affect you more than they do the truly guilty (who will quickly learn about the invasions and how to circumvent them).
World War II
“What about the situation in the 1930s, where the British under Chamberlain tried to appease rather than oppose Hitler, with horrible results?”
Many historians believe that if Chamberlain hadn’t signed the Munich pact in 1938, but had instead gone to war immediately with Germany, an unprepared England would have been defeated easily. Instead, the delay gave England time to get ready to resist Hitler – and even then, a better-prepared England just barely survived.
But “Munich” has become an all-purpose cliché to justify striking out violently against any foreign power that displeases our politicians: “If only Hitler had been stopped at Munich!” (as though at the time anyone had the resources to stop him). We need something more substantial than clichés to prevent future terrorist attacks.
“There are people like Adolf Hitler who are pure evil. You can’t hide your head in the sand and pretend they don’t exist. Our government must intervene overseas to root them out – just as we did in World War II.”
There are people with diseased minds in every part of the world – from your neighborhood right on up to heads of state. Once you accept the idea that a preemptive strike is justified, where do you stop?
It is easy to cite World War II as an example of our government’s proper intervention in world affairs – but only if you start the story in the 1930s, just as people are starting the terrorist story at last Tuesday.
In 1917 World War I was winding down to a close. Germany was suing for peace. A negotiated settlement was close, and the world could have returned to its pre-war borders and peace. But it was not to be.
At that point Woodrow Wilson took America into the conflict. That intervention changed history irrevocably for the worse. Millions of fresh American soldiers streamed into Europe – tipping the balance of power and overwhelming an enemy exhausted from three years of war. Germany and Austria surrendered, the German emperor fled to the Netherlands, and the Allies imposed devastating conditions upon a defeated Germany.
America’s action transformed a functioning Germany with Kaiser Wilhelm on the throne into a prostrate Germany eager for revenge. And so a nation of great artistry that had produced the likes of Goethe and Wagner was willing to accept a dictator who promised to help them get even.
The humanitarian spirit that propelled America into a war to “end all wars” laid the groundwork for two of history’s worst murderers – Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
Although no one can say for sure, it seems very likely that if America had stayed out of World War I there would have been no World War II. And without that war and without a Soviet Union, there would have been no Cold War, no Korean War, no Vietnam War. The 20th century wouldn’t have been an era of perfect peace, but it would have avoided being history’s bloodiest 100 years.
Could Woodrow Wilson – or anyone else – have foreseen all this in advance?
No, and that’s the point.
Once you embark on the use of force – for any purpose – you have no idea what will fly up out of Pandora’s box.
If you don’t look for the causes that precede the events, you have no hope of ever preventing a repetition of the events.
What the terrorists did last Tuesday was wrong. But if we don’t inquire into the background, and instead go off around the world on a holy jihad of our own, we will unleash consequences none of us can predict. But we can be almost positive that they won’t be to our liking.
“Don’t you think that if we were to withdraw from the Mideast, that eventually some Arab dictator would unite the Arab-Islamic world (violently) and pose a real threat to us?”
Arab dictators aren’t going to give up their fiefdoms to a single ruler. Nasser tried it with the United Arab Republic, but it lasted only a year or two. Bureaucrats in Europe love a central authority because it gives them more dictatorial power. But that isn’t likely to happen in the Middle East.
And what you suggest could be possible anywhere in the world. Does that justify the U.S. running the entire world? (Speaking of a single dictator!)
“Isn’t it occasionally right to intervene on the behalf of people that are being massacred, such as in Serbia?”
In a free country, you should be free to send money – or even yourself – to any country in the world to aid any cause you believe in (which, incidentally, isn’t completely legal under federal law today). But the American government shouldn’t use your money to intervene or stir up resentments for causes you may not believe in.
“The world is our business, we all live here. Should people be suffering in East Timor or Iraq or Ethiopia/Eritrea and we just stand by and let it happen if we can do something? I don’t think so. Taking more responsibility for all the people of this planet and all the nations of the world would be a better stance.”
That should be your choice. You should be free to help anyone anywhere in the world. But our politicians should not have the power to inflict violence on people in other countries in your name – making you a target of retribution.
“We are a world power and we must act like one. This means being unpopular. This means intervening in the world because we have a responsibility to the world.”
And it means having people attack us violently – no matter how many security measures are taken and no matter how many liberties you give up. Is that what you want?
“You speak of our government meddling in other people’s affairs. Give some specific examples.”
Our government has been giving money and military hardware to prop up dictators for over 50 years – including people like Manuel Noriega of Panama, whom our government then kidnapped and put in prison in America. And supporting the very Afghanistan government that supposedly today is harboring Osama bin Laden. Although a lot of the support for dictators was explained as a way of fighting communism, it continues today.
Yes, I know that often the people who eventually replace the dictators are just as bad, but that doesn’t justify our government giving your money to either the dictators or their replacements.
Did you know that our government still gives foreign aid to Afghanistan? Yes, the same country Bill Clinton attacked with cruise missiles.
And we have troops stationed in almost a hundred countries even today.
If dictators took over America, how would you feel about foreign countries that helped keep those dictators in power? How would you feel if foreign troops were stationed in your city?
Do you really think there’s anything strange about foreigners who love McDonald’s but hate our government?
I’m thankful to everyone who took the time to write me to voice a personal opinion – for or against what I’ve said. I’m sorry that the volume of mail is so great that I couldn’t possibly respond and thank you personally.
Although I’ve focused here on a sampling of the many complaints I’ve received, I’ve also received many supportive comments. Here is one from Katie Sweeney that makes an additional point:
“Thank you for asking the question that none of the ‘experts’ or politicians or news media will ask, which is: Just what have we done to make these people hate us so much?
“The politicians say it is just because we’re a free country. That is the propaganda needed to get everyone riled up to join the military and give their lives in ‘a battle of good vs. evil.’ But the truth is what you said, ‘We can’t allow our politicians to bully the world without someone bullying back eventually.’
“Today, I am filled with tremendous sadness. I am sad for the people who lost their lives and for their families and loved ones. But I am also sad because I know that nothing is going to be solved, and it will only get worse. The leaders will not speak the truth, and I don’t even think the people want to hear it. The only talk is of revenge, not of following your three wise suggestions of what we should do. I feel very powerless to change the course that history is taking and very vulnerable to its consequences.”
More to come, including what I believe we should do.
Published September 19, 2001 at 1:00am
I now have received over a thousand e-mails in response to my articles on the terrorist attacks. I regret that I can’t reply individually to them. Nor is it possible even to reply in print to many of the thoughtful suggestions, complaints, or proposals that readers have offered.
But there is one common theme I can deal with here – one that runs through all the proposals for retaliation – the assumption that the retaliation can be done in a way that achieves many good purposes with no bad consequences.
It can be summarized in the statement, “I believe we can retaliate with few innocent people killed, and Afghanistan may be a better place when we leave.”
But something very important is overlooked in almost every proposal I’ve received: When you believe the U.S. government can eradicate the terrorist threat, you’re assuming it will design, create, and carry out the plan the way you imagine it.
When you endorse the idea that our government should invade Afghanistan, or occupy the Middle East, or conduct “surgical strikes” against terrorist sanctuaries, or round up a particular class of people within the U.S., you automatically assume it will be done as you imagine – with no bad side effects.
(This is a problem common to all government programs. You see suffering or danger, and in your imagination you see a government program eliminating it. But in the real world the program could operate as you expect only if you were a dictator – having at your disposal all of government’s power to compel everyone involved to do things your way.)
But in fact it won’t be done your way. This isn’t Burger King.
The program you support will be carried out by the same kind of people who bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, who fired cruise missiles into the terrorist camp that wasn’t there in Afghanistan, who saw American troops humiliated in Lebanon and Somalia, who went to war with Iraq to keep oil plentiful but then forcibly prohibited the buying of most Iraqi oil afterward, who were going to stop Panama from being a drug conduit and instead left Panama completely defenseless against the drug trade.
That doesn’t mean the same kind of failures will happen again, but it does mean almost certainly that what you propose is not what you’ll get.
What’s overlooked in the support for unleashing the military, the FBI, the CIA, and other crime-fighting or war-making agencies is simply this: The government that’s supposed to win the War on Terrorism is the same one that’s been waging the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Illiteracy. Perhaps we should pay more attention to its track record.
President Bush said, “We will rid the world of the evil-doers.” Perhaps he could start with Washington, D.C. – and if he gets rid of the evil-doers there, he could move on to some other part of America – and if he succeeds there, he could extend the program to the rest of America – and if he succeeds there, he could ask the Canadians if they want our help – and if he succeeds there, he could go on to the Mexicans, the Haitians, the rest of Latin America, and then the Europeans, and so on.
But start with the whole world? Doesn’t that seem a little pretentious for a government with such a sorry record of failures?
If that sounds flippant, I’m sorry, but I get pretty tired of hearing all these promises made to justify taking more of my life away from me – when none of the thousands of promises made already has come even close to being fulfilled.
Why government fails
Why does government fail to keep its promises?
Whenever you ask the government to do anything, you transform what had been a financial, scientific, military, moral, or social matter into a political issue.
The program you propose will turn into one more Christmas tree on which every politician can hang his favorite pork-barrel boondoggle – and can use to sneak through his favorite scheme for controlling your life and money.
Government programs too often wind up doing the opposite of what their original supporters had expected. Look how programs to end racial discrimination have produced racial quotas, how federal programs to improve education have turned schools into laboratories for crackpot social theories, how “welfare reform” has greatly increased the cost of welfare, how “good works” to foreign countries have produced such ill will.
Political programs produce such strange results because the “public servants” who design and execute the programs have a wholly different agenda from the public who support them.
You aren’t a dictator
You don’t control the government. And your dreams of what government can achieve are just that – dreams. They bear no resemblance to what government will really do if your program is enacted.
If government is going to do someone’s bidding, is it likely to be your bidding – or that of people far more determined, far wealthier, and far more influential than you are – people who see the operation as a chance to further their own self-interest?
That’s why libertarians are so all-fired determined to reduce government to as small an entity as we can – where it can do as little damage as possible and be used as little as possible for someone’s gain at someone else’s expense.
That’s why it makes no sense to entrust government with the job of bringing peace to the world. It can no more do that than Caesar could. And it can no more rid the world of evil-doers or make it “safe for democracy” than it can stamp out drugs or poverty.
So long as government is supposed to be the instrument of our protection, we can ask it to seek out, capture, try, and punish the specific people involved in the specific attacks – and hope that it doesn’t kill too many innocent bystanders in the process. But think twice – no, think a hundred times – before sending it on a mission to cleanse the world of evil.
For our long-term safety, we must quit entrusting our government with world police powers.
When will we learn that government is not our salvation?