A Cautionary Note on the War on Terrorism

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A Cautionary Note on the War on Terrorism

by Eric Mack, September 17, 2001

Eric Mack is a professor of philosophy at Tulane University.

With regard to the impeding "war on terrorism," there are two groups of people I do not particularly want to address. The first consists of those folks who, following the old Rothbard strategy, oppose any proposed military action by the U.S. government on the grounds that, whatever the current crisis or horror, the fault ultimately lies with past U.S. policy. While it will be obvious in the following that I am not great admirer of the actions of our esteemed leaders, this strategy has always seemed to me to be motivated by a perverse desire to condemn one's own state especially and to deny the evils of other agents in the world. The second group I do not particularly want to address are those who, like Peikoff, are quite willing -- indeed, it seems eager -- for the U.S. military to wipe out entire cities or nations on the grounds that "they" are harboring murderous terrorists. This is an extraordinary thing to hear from people who purport to be individualists, i.e., who purport to take individuals and not collectivities as the bearers of value, responsibility, and rights.

The people I want to address are those who, like myself, believe that some sustained, extensive, and death-inflicting response by the U.S. military is justified, but who are prepared to be cautious in what response they endorse and very concerned about what the costs may be of a war on terrorism.

Any libertarian or Objectivist must take any killing of the innocent to be profoundly morally troubling. And any large-scale military operation, any "war," no matter how just its cause, will inevitably involve the killing of some innocent people. This is one major reason why libertarians and Objectivists should think carefully about what sort of a war they are prepared to endorse. The other major reason to think carefully is that the war you endorse is going to be carried out by a government that may have something less than a sterling record in the particular ends it chooses to pursue, in the types of means it is be willing to use, and in its effectiveness at attaining its chosen ends.

I would argue that a version of just war theory that says that, if one's cause is just, then one may engage in military action -- but only if one's action targets the enemy forces. One may never target innocents (i.e., those not directly contributing to the aggressive threat); but one may proceed with actions that target the enemy forces even if one foresees that some innocents will be killed as a side-effect of one's attack. (Actually, this is not enough, the weapons and the types of tactics one employs in the attack upon enemy forces must themselves have been developed with the aim of minimizing "collateral" damage.) Highly precise attacks on terrorist camps and hideouts would satisfy this just war standard. Highly precise attacks on the military posts, weaponry, etc, within nations whose governments genuinely harbor terrorists would satisfy this standard. But attacks that -- as one contributor to this list so elegantly put it -- would "pave Iraq" would be war crimes in the same general category as the actions perpetrated in New York.

The problem is that we have no reason to expect our leaders to be morally fastidious -- or even militarily competent. They will most want to satisfy the demand for "results" that they are now carefully orchestrating. When they fail to root out and kill the terrorists themselves, they will be strongly tempted to blame the "harboring" nations -- and take it out, not on the autocrats of those nations, but on the people who already have the misfortune to be under their heels. The individual autocrats are, after all, hard to kill; their oppressed subjects are often sitting ducks. The people who will be conducting this war on terror are essentially the same people who stupidly stopped military action twenty-four hours too soon, then encouraged dissident groups in Iraq to rebel, then betrayed those people, then settled on a policy of embargo against Iraq that has probably been responsible for the deaths of many thousand Iraqi children over the past decade. Indeed, the people who will be conducting this war are essentially the same people who could not figure out that people might use knives to hijack planes. These are essentially the same people who would rather people afflicted with cancer suffocate in their own vomit than allow them to use marijuana. These are essentially the same people who have proven to be much better at burning to death children within the U.S. or protecting those who did that killing than in preventing foreign threats from burning children to death.

And who are our leaders eager to recruit as our allies in this crusade against terrorism? High on the list are Assad of Syria and the current military rulers of Pakistan. And clearly, our leaders would welcome cooperation from the current rulers of Iran. Will the enemies of those regimes thereby become our enemies? Will our part of the bargain be to held suppress resistance to those regimes? In Pakistan, blasphemy is a capital crime. If the physician now on trial there for blasphemy were to kill his jailor and escape, would the U.S. have to help track him down in the name of anti-terrorism? How tolerant will the sort of men in power in Washington feel they have to be of Sharon if, in the course of our cooperative war on terrorism, he decides to engage the sort of slaughter of innocents that occurred under his watch in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s?

Objectivists have been slow to appreciate the many ways in which "war is the health of the state." But what we see now among many of our politicians and pundits is thrill at the prospect of finally having a national purpose that will require discipline, control, and the elimination of that pesty thing, liberty. War always ratchets up the power and the influence of the state; it always reinvigorates the idea that we must turn to and rely upon the state for all the really important things in life. Since the terrorists may be everywhere, insinuating themselves into every nook and cranny of our society, no nook or cranny of our society should be left uninspected and uncontrolled. As always, every failure of the government's campaign will be blamed on its not yet possessing sufficient power. Every failure will be an excuse to wage further war on our liberties.

I do not mean all of this to be prediction but, rather, warning. The terrorists ought to be hunted down and killed (very slowly). But there are deep dangers to our liberties associated with entering into any sort of war and, perhaps, especially a war that is as ill-defined as one against terrorism. Moreover, there are deep dangers of moral corruption -- the corruption of coming to support or coming to tolerate the moral tribalism that wants to see "us" killing "them" and the corruption of refusing to recognize it when "our" means of waging war become unjust and "our" political leaders themselves become war criminals.

It is one thing to feel deep and abiding moral anger toward the murderers and their supporters. It is one thing to feel renewed loyalty to the special sort of society that these murderers hope to destroy. It is one thing to believe that justice permits robust self-defense and retaliation. But I urge people to recognition that it is yet another thing -- it is a very different thing -- either to endorse an open-ended, ill-defined war on terrorism or to expect that those at the head of our government will, with dedication to our liberties, actually conduct themselves with intelligence and due moral constraint.

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