Comments on the Recent Terrorist Attacks

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Comments on the Recent Terrorist Attacks

Michael Huemer published the following remarks September 12 at

The recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon raise the questions of why terrorist attacks occur and what we should do in response. I caution the reader that I am not an expert on terrorism; I am just a philosopher. I will therefore try to give a philosophical answer to those questions.

Previous Terrorist Attacks in the United States

First, consider some history. The following is a list of all the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States that I could find by a internet search. Caution: I do not guarantee that this list is exhaustive; this is just what I could find.

Sept. 16, 1920 New York: TNT bomb planted in unattended horse-drawn wagon exploded on Wall Street. 35 deaths. Parties responsible: unknown; Bolshevik or anarchist terrorists were suspected.
Jan. 24, 1975 New York: bomb set off in historical Fraunces Tavern. 4 deaths. Parties responsible: Puerto Rican nationalist group (FALN) claimed responsibility.
Feb. 26, 1993 New York: World Trade Center Bombing. 6 deaths. Parties responsible: several Muslim terrorists.
1979-1995 Unabomber attacks. 3 deaths (16 injured). Party responsible: Ted Kaczynski.
Apr. 19, 1995 Oklahoma City: federal building bombing. 168 deaths. Parties responsible: Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols.
Sept. 11, 2001 New York, Washington: World Trade Center, Pentagon attacks. Unknown number of fatalities, possibly about 5,000. Parties responsible: unknown, possibly connected to Osama bin Laden.

In addition, some people believe the crash of TWA flight 800 was caused by terrorists, but the National Transportation Safety Board concluded it was due to mechanical failure, so I do not include it above. I also have not included terrorist attacks on American targets overseas.

Notice the dates. Before 1975, only one incident occurred. After that, five, including four in the last decade (or three, depending on how one counts the unabomber). This naturally raises the worry: have we entered a new age of terrorism? As we see below, there is some reason to think the answer is yes.

The Motivations of Terrorists

President Bush characterized the recent attacks as "evil" and "cowardly." Take the "cowardly" remark first. It is difficult to understand what Bush might have meant by this. "Cowardly," in English, does not normally function simply as a general term of condemnation. Instead, it describes a person who is unable to overcome his fears or otherwise shows undue concern over personal safety. Whatever other vices suicide bombers have, excessive fearfulness or concern for personal safety do not seem to be among them.

Next, take the "evil" remark. While the parties responsible were almost certainly evil (or insane), this does not sufficiently explain their actions. For if they were merely hateful and generally evil, why go to all the trouble of planning such an elaborate attack, rather than simply, say, going on a killing spree in their own neighborhood?

Terrorists do not attack targets randomly, nor do they attack out of mere general evil or hatred. They attack because of their political beliefs. The World Trade Center was targeted because it is a symbol of American economic strength, while New York City is perhaps the worldwide symbol of American capitalism (notice that four of the above incidents occurred in New York City). The Pentagon was targeted because it represents American military power. This leads to the first major, underlying cause of terrorism:

1. Extreme moral-political disagreements.

A "moral-political issue," as I use the term, is a moral issue that is also a political one, i.e., an issue about how the state should act.

Example of a moral issue: Consider the issue of whether it is morally permissible to tell 'white lies.' This is not a "moral-political" issue. It is moral, but not political, since it concerns only individual conduct.

Example of a political issue: Consider the issue of how much funding should be allocated to the Boulder police department. For most people, this is not a moral-political issue, but only a political one, because most people would not consider it morally wrong to allocate the incorrect (sub-optimal) amount of funds.

Example of a moral-political issue: Consider the issue of abortion, or capital punishment. Both are moral issues (some believe capital punishment to be morally wrong, and some believe abortion to be morally wrong). They are also political, since they are closely involved with questions about what the state ought to do (should the state execute some criminals; should the state permit abortions?).

Large-scale violence is almost always over moral-political issues, and it occurs because people with opposing moral-political beliefs are unable to resolve their disputes peacefully. Each side typically remains extremely strongly convinced that it is correct. Because of the moral character of the issue, each side commonly believes the other to be "evil", and because of the political character of the issue, each side is commonly unwilling to allow the other side to have its way (i.e., we cannot just agree to each pursue our respective ethics in our own private lives).

Second cause:

2. Lack of respect for rights, and an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.

The idea that "the ends justify the means" means, roughly, that it is morally acceptable to violate others' rights, or commit other sorts of acts usually considered to be wrong, provided that doing so serves the overall greater good. The 'greater good' has usually been interpreted to mean 'the good of society,' but it could also refer to religious ideals (the good of God).

Terrorists target innocent victims. Most normal people, even when they have strong moral-political disagreements, do not believe in trying to get their way by attacking innocents, because most normal people believe other people have rights, and do not believe that the ends justify the means. Terrorists believe that their goal is so important that it is worth committing murder to achieve it. (The same belief has usually been held by governments, with even more terrible consequences.)

Note: I am not saying that all people with an ends-justify-the-means philosophy support terrorism, nor am I saying all people with extreme moral-political views do so. Thankfully, most (in both categories) do not. Nevertheless, I believe that almost all terrorists have such beliefs.

I also am not saying that this proves that all extreme moral-political beliefs are false, nor even that the belief that 'the ends justify the means' is false; although it does seem to me to show that both categories of belief are harmful. Those who believe that the ends justify the means are highly likely to miscalculate the overall good, and political beliefs in general are highly likely to be false.

A natural consequence of the belief that the ends justify the means is the disregard for, or rejection of, individual rights. And a natural consequence of this is the belief that violence is an acceptable means of imposing one's political views on others.

After all, America seems to have accepted the principle, at least as regards violence performed by our government, on our behalf. It seems to have started in World War II; at the start, there was a nominal intention to follow the rules of war, including not attacking civilians. But the Germans attacked civilians, so the Allies followed suit. Few (except Anscombe; see her "Mr Truman's Degree") would venture to brand the allied leaders in World War II as mass murderers, for the firebombing of civilian targets in Germany and Japan followed by the atomic bombing. But those who eschewed Anscombe's "extreme" position are in a poor position now to explain why modern terrorists who target civilians in the pursuit of their political or religious ideals are evil extremists, unless it is only because they have selected the wrong religion or political ideology.

3. The U.S. has many enemies.

Some enemies we have because of earlier, interventionist foreign policies. American intervention in other countries (usually trying to prop up one regime, or topple another) has often caused resentment. I will not attempt to catalog these cases, as I am no foreign policy expert.

Another reason why the U.S. has many enemies is that it is the country in the world most associated with democratic capitalism, and it is the most powerful country in the world, both economically and militarily. Therefore, those who despise either democracy or capitalism see an attack on the United States as an attack on democratic capitalism.

A third reason is that the United States is generally prosperous and free. Most political ideologies are opposed to freedom (though they will not usually say so quite that bluntly), and some include a general hatred of the rich. Included in this category are ideologies which irrationally claim that America's wealth somehow causes the poverty of poorer countries.

Why Terrorism Has Increased in Modern Times

A number of features of modern society combine to make it increasingly easy for individuals or small groups to wreak extreme destruction on others:

a. The increasing concentration of population (large cities). This gives terrorists easy targets.

b. Commonly available advanced technology. Advanced technology--whether weapons or other technology--tends to harness large energies, which, therefore, can become highly destructive if misdirected. Nothing like the destructive force of a plane crash could have been harnessed a hundred years ago.

Not only is technology advancing, but it is increasingly becoming cheaply available to ordinary people. Any ordinary person can buy a plane ticket, a car, or an assault rifle.

c. The anonymity of modern society. Due to the complexity of modern society and the millions of people contained in it, it is easy for a terrorist group to carry on its activities without anyone noticing.

d. The increasing difficulty of fighting modern governments directly. Terrorist groups would be defeated immediately in a direct conflict with the American military. Therefore, their only available strategy is stealth attacks, often against civilians.

Unfortunately, these factors suggest that terrorism will increase in the future. None of the four above factors is likely to go away; instead, all four are likely to become more pronounced.

What Should We Do?

First, here are several things we should not do:
1. React emotionally. Most of the following would be examples of bad, emotion-based responses.
2. Make hasty assumptions about who is responsible. Osama bin Laden has been accused, but Islamic terrorists were also immediately suspected after the Oklahoma City bombing. This time, Islamic terrorists are very probably responsible, likely including bin Laden, but many others could be involved (instead or in addition). The Federation of American Scientists' web page lists 370 terrorist or "other para-state entities" throughout the world.
3. Blame large groups (such as all Muslims) for what only a few individuals are probably responsible for. Whether Muslim terrorists are responsible or not, most Muslims are not terrorists or in any way associated with terrorism.
4. Give in to unjust demands in order to appease our enemies. This would only lead to further demands and further attacks, when our enemies learn that the strategy is successful.
5. Surrender freedom out of fear. All freedom entails risk. Every time a major disaster occurs in the United States, there are immediate calls for surrendering our civil rights in order to enable authorities to prevent further disasters. But when disasters fail to happen, no one ever calls for decreasing security measures. Thus, the almost inevitable tendency of modern society is to gradually erode freedom, as long as there is any left to erode.
The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause has already been abandoned for the sake of airport security. People heading to Denver airport are being searched without probable cause, as their effects are regularly searched without probable cause before boarding airplanes.
President Bush characterized Tuesday's terrorist attack as an attack on freedom. I ask, then, what are we doing but allowing that attack to succeed--indeed, contributing to that attack, and surrendering traditional American values out of fear?

Here are some other suggestions as to what we might do:

6. In general, try to respond rationally.
7. Retaliate against those responsible. I favor the method of assassination, as being the most moral and humane method. We may have to assassinate members of the Taliban, in addition to terrorist leaders. This would be a praiseworthy action, for which the people of Afghanistan would probably thank us.
Some would object that in this case we, too, would be terrorists. But it is difficult to see why it would be more moral to kill large numbers of innocent civilians (war) than to just kill the people who are guilty.
8. Alter U.S. foreign policies to make fewer enemies in the future. In general, if we avoid interventions in the conflicts of other countries as much as possible, we should make fewer enemies.
9. Airport security: In my opinion, we should avoid security measures that violate civil liberties; we already have too much of those already. But some forms of security do not violate civil liberties and are acceptable. We should use the mechanism of the free market by allowing airlines to choose their own security measures; customers can then choose the airline with the security measures they believe most appropriate. As in all other areas, this would be expected to produce the most efficient outcomes.
The above suggestion is also most consistent with the Constitution. Existing security procedures violate the fourth amendment, being federally mandated searches without warrants and without probable cause. They also, of course, violate the tenth amendment (there is no constitutional authority to regulate air travel). And there is no reason to believe that federally mandated measures would be the best even from the standpoint of security. The federal government's track record is not great so far, in this or other areas.
10. Let the airlines issue weapons to pilots and flight attendants. After this policy was adopted, perhaps one more terrorist hijacking would occur; and after that, none, because the terrorists would have been stopped without achieving their goals.
Ask yourself, how could a few people take control of and subsequently kill an entire airplaneful of people? The answer is that the terrorists were the only ones armed, and Americans have been taught not to defend themselves when confronted by violent criminals but to just leave everything to the Authorities. Since we can't keep people from bringing plastic knives on board (unless we want to strip search every passenger), the only way to even the odds is to arm the good guys. Firearms with frangible bullets would be most effective (these bullets, commercially available already, fragment on impact and can penetrate flesh but not the side of an airplane).

Overweighting Concentrated Harms

People have a systematic tendency to overweight concentrated harms and ignore diffuse harms. This often makes us shoot ourselves in the foot by implementing policies with much greater costs than benefits.

The World Trade Center attack was an example of a concentrated harm: the victims each suffered a very great harm (death), and the harm happened all in one place and time. This is now almost the entire focus of the nation's attention. This sort of harm can arouse deep and intense emotions.

An example of a diffuse harm would be the 21,000 annual homicide deaths in the United States: these occur at different times, spread all over the country. This harm, though its total magnitude is several times greater than that of the WTC bombing, is not generally reported on the news or paid attention to. (How many of you knew this statistic?) In addition, 2.3 million people (6,300 per day) die annually from all causes, but the 6,300 non-terrorist deaths on September 11th were not reported on the news, because they occurred in different places. (Source: National Safety Council, Injury Facts, 1999 edition.)

An example of an even more diffuse harm is the lost time spent in airports. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about 290 million domestic airplane trips are taken per year in the United States. Suppose that due to strict airport security measures (old as well as new measures), each passenger spends an average of two hours in the airport. Then the total cost would be 580 million man-hours per year, or about 5,800 lifetimes worth of labor for each year the measures are in effect. This cost will be ignored by government, news media, and the people, even though its total magnitude, over a period of years, will exceed the total harms due to terrorism to date. This enormous harm will be ignored because it is extremely diffuse: it is spread over a very large number of people, at many different times and places.

The point here is not that we don't need to worry about terrorism. But we need to keep some perspective on how much sacrifice we should be willing to make to stop terrorist attacks. Undoubtedly, we need to go after (and kill) the individuals responsible. But it is not worth starting a major war (wars typically kill at least hundreds of thousands of people); nor is it worth compromising our Constitutional freedoms or fundamentally altering our way of life.

The following comments were sent by Michael Huemer to a list at They are reprinted here with permission.

September 12, 2001

[Leonard Peikoff has called for wide-scale military retaliation against some Middle Eastern nations.]

In response to Peikoff's suggestions:

Keep in mind that Peikoff is the person who has previously advocated dropping a nuclear bomb on Tehran, a city of 10 million, to retaliate for state-sponsored terrorism (this was before Tuesday's attack).

It is tempting to have a purely emotional response. It is exactly at times like this that our commitment to our moral principles is tested--especially as libertarians or Objectivists, who reject the use of violence against innocent people. The test will be as to how many of us, in the face of the severest provocation, can remember that *most* Muslims and Arabs are not terrorists and have played no role in terrorism. Peikoff's warmongering proposal would almost certainly lead to at least hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths, possibly millions. (I *hope* no one is going to say, "All Arabs are responsible for their governments' actions.")

We are being tested as to whether we will place reason and principle before emotion and the desire to avoid being ridiculed by irrational people (like the other poster today who said America is run by "women" because we don't support mass slaughter of innocents). If we can't, then the terrorists will have succeeded in destroying America.

September 14, 2001

Four more comments on the terrorism problem.

1. This isn't going to be the end; in all probability, this is just the beginning.

[Another poster suggested the use of nuclear bombs as a last resort against the terrorists might be appropriate, and that the World Trade Center was attacked because America did not respond strongly to past threats.]

Although this is a tempting thought, when you think about it more, it's absurd. It's absurd to think that these people are going to just back off because we retaliate. What are we thinking, that they're not as fanatical as us? That they're not as revenge-oriented? That they're more afraid to die? If the attack on the Twin Towers prompted us to seek blood vengeance, how much more clearly will they feel the desire for revenge? To be sure, their desire will be unjust, but none the less strong for that.

The Arabs have been carrying on their bloody conflict with the Jews for thousands of years. How long will they carry on their conflict with us?

2. In medicine, the motto is, "First, do no harm." This was a wise rule when medical knowledge was in a primitive state--the greatest threat was that the doctor would make things worse by messing around in the patient's body, not knowing what he was doing.

In politics, the motto is more like, "Something has to be done"--the exact opposite. We'll be acting on that motto now and, as is usual in politics, we will probably succeed in turning a bad situation into a much, much worse one.

3. People have a systematic tendency to overemphasize *concentrated* harms, and ignore diffuse harms. Concentrated harms are when a lot of harm occurs in roughly the same place and time. Diffuse harms are spread out over different people, or different places and times.

Terrorist attacks are a concentrated harm. Probably several thousand people died in one place on Tuesday. On the other hand, the *normal* death toll for 1 day in the United States is 6,300 (2.3 million per year), but the other 6,300 people who died that day were not reported on the news. Why? Because that is a diffuse harm--spread out over the whole country, and at different times of the day.

Here is another diffuse harm. Suppose airport security measures cost each passenger 1 extra hour per trip. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that there are about 290 million domestic airplane trips per year. Thus, this level of airport security would have a cost of 290 million man-hours per year. This is equal to approximately 2,900 lifetimes worth of labor, every year that the measures are in effect. Of course, this cost will be completely ignored by policy makers, because it is a diffuse harm.

The new airport security measures will not stop terrorism (it's too easy to carry a bomb into a public building), but they will erode our civil liberties and create a diffuse harm comparable in total magnitude to the deaths of several hundred to a few thousand deaths per year.

4. In business, when a policy fails, you try something different, or customers will find a different company to patronize. In politics, the strategy is the exact opposite: when something fails that you thought was going to succeed, you conclude that "we haven't been doing enough"--so you continue the policy, but in a more extreme way.

When our anti-terrorism policies (security measures and retaliation) fail, their failure will almost certainly be met by demands to do more of the same.

September 14, 2001 (evening)

A lot has been said already, but I feel I need to emphasize the basic irrationality of our natural impulses. Our natural impulse is the desire for blood vengeance, no matter the cost (this is my natural impulse, just like everyone else)--and therefore we rationalize this by saying, "It's the only way to stop terrorism in the future." But excessive force will not stop terrorism.

The American retaliation *must* (to avoid extremely bad consequences) have two characteristics: it must be perceived to be (1) successful, and (2) just, or at least understandable.

As to (1): obviously, we can't afford to attack bin Laden and miss, like we did 3 years ago. He will then just plan another, bigger attack. Therefore, we should take all the time and resources necessary to succeed.

As to (2): We need to get just the terrorist groups. We can't go off killing large numbers of uninvolved civilians. If we do, we will just be creating more terrorists. The "perceived to be" means perceived by most of the Arab world. Obviously, there are fanatics who will think anything we do unjust; the point is not to add to their ranks by doing something that even average people will perceive as monstrous. The reason for retaliation has to be to get rid of those specific people (bin Laden and his followers) so they cannot plan any more terrorist attacks. Now here are three delusional intentions that I hope we don't have:

1. To scare off the terrorists. The terrorists apparently thought that by attacking us (innocent civilians) they would scare us off. We all know that that belief was utterly wrong. Now think for two seconds: Why on earth would we think that attacking Arab civilians will scare off the terrorists? Hello? They're fanatics. They think they go to heaven if they die in battle.

2. To eliminate *all* the terrorists. There are literally hundreds of terrorist leaders/groups in the world, and we don't know where they are. We can't eliminate all of them, any more than you can catch all the criminals. (Source:

3. To make it impossible to commit terrorist acts in the U.S. I hope it's obvious to all here that that is an impossible goal.

The impossibility of 1, 2, and 3 is why we need to be concerned with the (perceived) justice of our response.

Now, in case anyone is still inclined to "bravely" advocate massive violence against civilians (nuclear weapons have been mentioned), *please* consider this question: What is the next stage in this conflict?

We really need to think about that, because Tuesday's attack--which was an order of magnitude worse than any earlier terrorist attacks--is far from being the worst thing that a determined and well-funded terrorist group could do. Is the next stage that they release anthrax into the New York water supply? Or deploy a nuclear bomb?

Those are real possibilities. The information as to how to create a nuclear bomb is publicly available. Are you sure no terrorist can get a hold of the plutonium? Perhaps Pakistan secretly hands some over? Do you think they wouldn't do that, if (for example) we started using nuclear weapons?

My proposal is that we (1) kill Osama bin Laden, and then (2) pull out of the Middle East--pull our military out, and stop donating money to foreign governments. We shouldn't be doing that anyway, on libertarian principles. The privilege of feeling brave (getting to say, "well, at least I didn't 'back down'") is not worth turning this country into a war zone like the Middle East.

Now I hope some radical Objectivist isn't going to respond, "You coward!" I am not worried about my personal safety--they're not going to target Boulder. What I am concerned about is the future of my country. If we care about that, we should take the time to think things through rationally.

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