Day of Resolve

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com

Day of Resolve

by Ari Armstrong, September 12, 2001

One page reads "INFAMY."

Two points are obvious. First, we must come together as a nation to help the injured, comfort the families of the dead, and begin to deal with the deep physical and emotional wounds inflicted on us. Second, as our President said, the terrorist acts are evil. We Americans, and people from across the world, are righteous in our anger.

Yesterday, I put up a short message at the Colorado Freedom Report titled, "Day of Tears" (www.freecolorado.com/2001/09/shorts11.html). Today, appropriately, is the "Day of Resolve," even as we continue to weep.

Journalists and writers across the country are struggling to come to grips with the horrible tragedy visited upon our great nation. In addition to making some small contribution to that discussion, I face the additional challenge of working out the implications of the attack for libertarians and their ideas.

Coming Together

Shawn Elke Glazer, a medical doctor and a board member of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, sent out a needed jolt of activism in the midst of paralyzing horror. "As many of us sit feeling helpless I want to remind you that there is a very patriotic act you can do today -- give blood!"

Steve Dasbach, National Director of the LP, sent a similar message: "I would like to urge everyone receiving this message to donate blood at his or her earliest opportunity (starting Tuesday). As Libertarians, we believe in individual initiative and personal responsibility, and I hope that thousands of Libertarians will choose to take this action to help our fellow citizens."

(To read early Libertarian comments, see www.freecolorado.com/2001/09/glazer.html.)

Patriotism is a natural and proper experience at times like these, as an extension of our humanity and desire to help others in need. There's an urge, a need, to sprint over to New York and start hauling away bricks. But for most of us that's simply impossible. However, we can all give blood, stay informed, enter the national debate, and do what we can to restore our country, prevent future calamity, and punish those responsible.

Horror, Dismay, Frustration, and Sorrow

It took a while for me to catch up to the events psychologically. Each advance in the horror took my utterly by surprise, especially the collapse of the buildings. I was awakened by a couple early phone calls; since then I've watched the television endlessly through blurred vision

I've realized just how proud an American I am. I do think I live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. That makes the anger deeper. It also causes dismay, confusion, and even disillusionment. How is this possible?

A handful of terrorists captured American planes using nothing more than careful plans and knives. Then they used our own planes to murder thousands of innocent people. God! It seems so ridiculous. Some of the national anger is a cover for national disillusionment. We're the world's premier superpower, brought down by gnats! I think that's why it seems unbelievable.

I never even imagined that terrorists could be so successful on national soil using such simple plans and tools. In retrospect, the attack seems both deviously brilliant and totally predictable. How could we have failed to anticipate it?

Part of it is just the raw ruthlessness, the pure, unmitigated depravity of it. America celebrates life, celebrates progress. It's tough to think about how people could be so completely inhuman. Attacking military targets is one thing. An attack calculated so coldly to kill so many innocent civilians is almost unimaginable to those with any moral bearing.

Blood donation was first mentioned to me by my cousin, whose husband is on a Navy carrier. Finally, something to do, however inadequate it seems. Of course, by the time I figured out where blood centers are located, they were already backed up.

There is word that the aircraft that crashed into the ground may have been intended for another target, but the aims of the terrorists may have been partially thwarted because the passengers fought back. That, along with hundreds of other details, helps to reinforce my pride.

The Libertarian Framework

Libertarianism begins with the proposition that every individual human life is important, that every person has a right to life, that violent aggression is always wrong (whereas self-defense is appropriate).

Libertarians denounce all instances of attacks on civilians. Libertarians believe that government (or governance) has the responsibility to protect innocent life and bring perpetrators of violence to justice.

We suffered an attack within our national borders. As a libertarian, I believe it's appropriate to pursue those known to be responsible for the terrorist acts and employ force against them.

Most people will agree with these comments. The difficulty lies in the details, as is usual.

Protect Civil Rights

I heard some disturbing comments early on. One national broadcast news anchor said we'd have to "revisit a lot of our freedoms." Governor Bill Owens said the tragedy is "the price we pay for having such a free and open democracy." I thought those comments were inappropriate. To be fair, Owens also said some good things: he said we can't implement a police state and he referenced the awakening of the "sleeping giant."

The worst thing we could do is allow the further erosion of American civil rights. That would be admitting defeat to the terrorists.

It would also be counter-productive. It is simply wrong to blame terrorism on American liberties. It's not true that we'd be safer if only we'd relinquish more of our freedoms. No one is less safe than he who lives in a totalitarian regime. There is no dichotomy between rights and human well-being: rights are the necessary precondition to human well-being.

Perhaps what the newsman had in mind is airport security. This is a tricky issue because airports are part of a political-private partnership, which implies ill-defined property rights. If airports were entirely operated on the market, they would certainly incorporate security measures.

Part of the confusion lies in the conflicting definitions of "freedom." For libertarians, freedom means primarily freedom from initiatory force, whether from petty criminals, terrorists, or state entities. If freedom is understood in other ways, then some limitations of freedom are compatible with (indeed, indispensable to) libertarianism. For instance, I am not free to bust into your house and take what I want or use your facilities. Private property owners are free to set rules for use of the property.

In terms of airports, if operated wholly on the market they would face the incentive of keeping a customer base as well as the threat of civil suits in cases of negligence. Given our mixed economy in this industry, we have to expect similar kinds of restrictions.

Unfortunately, few make such fine differentiations. I hope people don't conflate normal airport security with infringements on civil rights. As Harry Browne noted, it's ridiculous to give up our freedoms in the name of freedom.

A Jeffersonian Foreign Policy

First, while patriotism based on American ideals of freedom and justice is healthy, a zealous nationalism that excuses abuses of more innocent people either at home or abroad is unhealthy and immoral. Already some Americans have been threatened because of ethnic bigotry. That this is wrong should go without saying.

The more difficult issue pertains to the desirability of interventionism. I'm sensitive to John Berntson's warning that libertarians ought not join the "'blame America first' crowd." I'm blaming the terrorists for this act, and only the terrorists. On this point, I'm a little "hawkish" along the lines of what we might expect from the Peikoff branch of the Objectivist movement.

There's an analogy that applies to numerous situations, and I think it's useful here. If an unarmed person walks carelessly through a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood at night, and that person is attacked and killed, whose fault is the death? Clearly, the blame must be put on the attacker. The victim is innocent. However, the victim is also careless. So, while no moral blame is assigned to the victim, we can still point to ways the victim might have prevented trouble by being more careful. My dad teaches a class called "refuse to be a victim." Even though we blame violent persons and seek to bring them to justice, we still rightly seek out ways to protect ourselves from violent persons.

In other words, it's possible to talk about policy changes in America, without blaming America. That's the appropriate course here.

I've seen two pieces that may be too heavy on criticizing America. Harry Browne's article is at www.freecolorado.com/2001/09/browne.html; James Phelps' letter to the Rocky Mountain News is at www.freecolorado.com/2001/09/phelps.html.

Browne makes some points that are difficult to dispute. "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."

Thomas Jefferson recommended that America avoid "foreign entanglements." Note that this is not an isolationist position. The libertarian foreign policy may seem paradoxical, but it makes a lot of sense. In short, libertarians call for market globalism but state minimalism. For libertarians, the purpose of government is to protect the people within its regional boundaries against criminal attacks from within and without.

Madaline Albright, on the other hand, said those who believe in "democracy and human rights" will ask American politicians to remain heavily involved in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. While Albright is welcome to reasonably defend her belief in interventionism, her attempt to seize the moral highground fails. Libertarians seek to avoid "foreign entanglements" precisely because they support human rights.

Libertarians argue that when government tries to play global cop, it often achieves injustice both at home and abroad. Does anyone doubt that American politicians have killed innocent civilians around the world in bombing raids? We've destabalized much of South America through our drug policies. At the same time, the same politicians send some political refugees back to be brutalized in their homelands. Libertarians would allow those being persecuted elsewhere in the world to find protection within our nation's borders.

Libertarians are all for private efforts to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to other regions around the world. That's the main difference. For libertarians, the focus is on voluntary cooperation among citizens. Only those who idealize the state conflate global action with state action.

I really believe that we would help other people in the world the most by creating a brighter beacon of liberty here at home. If we'd create a freer, more prosperous nation, one that didn't give others an excuse to demonize us, there would be few people in the world who could look at America and not want what we've got and try to replicate it.

Immediate Concerns

I feel it's important to talk about the larger issues because others are talking about them. Libertarians would be remiss in fulfilling their social responsibilities if they refused to offer up their positive suggestions for the consideration of others.

But many of those concerns must be left to the future. Today, we condemn the terrorists for their heinous crimes and commit to bringing them to justice. Most of all, we do what we can to help rebuild our nation, both physically and emotionally.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com