|Montreal, October 13, 2001 / No 90|
by Pierre Lemieux
It is correct and a bit banal to say that the still alive perpetrators of, or accomplices in, the September 11 attacks on American civilians must be punished, if only to deter anybody from cooperating in the commission of such crimes in the future, and to discourage the nurturing of such fanatics. When there are irreconcilable differences in fundamental values, when these differences cannot be resolved through individual liberty because one side forcibly rejects this solution, as between Islamic fanatics and Western individualists, there is no solution but to fight it out.
The question is: By what means? War – i.e., the use of overt violence by
one nation against another – is not the only recourse. Others means include
covert operations, dirty if necessary, limited military raids, and perhaps
systems of bounties, all of which designed to bring the suspects to justice
or to execute the guilty, instead of engaging large civilian populations.
Dismantling the criminal networks used by terrorists is another complementary
The means depend on the goal pursued. If the objective is to minimize terrorism regardless of the consequences, then waging total war on the states that encourage, finance or harbor terrorists is probably the efficient solution. If the objective is to protect liberty, I suggest that total war is not the best solution.
The war feeds the state
The orthodox, hobbesian, economic explanation of war is that it protects the subjects against foreign thugs organized in states, just as ordinary law enforcement provides protection against domestic criminals. In this perspective, war and other types of state violence are justified by their consequences: they minimize violence and foster prosperity. Individual liberty is protected in the sense that somebody who has died from starvation or aggression has no liberty left at all.
Hobbesian liberty is consistent with a totalitarian state and is quite far from the libertarian conception. The problem of how the state, in minimizing violence, protects liberty becomes more complicated – and more interesting – if we take liberty to mean more than simply not being killed or starved. We then realize that war can result in increased state power and diminished liberty, compared to what would have happened otherwise. Indeed, it is this very possibility that makes war in the interest of the state. While daily protection against common criminals is in the interest of both the state and the citizens because it promotes prosperity, war is more likely to be in the interest of the state only.
There are many reasons why, as far as protection of liberty is concerned, war is more difficult to justify than other types of state protection.
The first reason lies in the scale of war when the warring states claim to be representative of citizens who, on their side, recognize themselves in their states and say "
We end up, as explained Bertrand de Jouvenel during the Second World War, with states that cannot be anything but barbarian: “We are ending where the savages began. We have found again the lost arts of starving non-combatants, burning hovels, and leading away the vanquished into slavery. Barbarian invasions would be superfluous: we are our own Huns.”(1) Nobody is yet talking about slavery, but our states have found a way, through embargos, to starve non-combatants even in peacetime.
“In this new kind of war, every civilian is a combatant, every city and office building a front line,” writes Howard Fineman, as if we had to accept this as obvious.(2) The domestic tyrannical implications follow immediately: “A generation that grew up in unimagined freedom — political, artistic, sexual — will have to abide new limits on travel, on communications, on free speech, due process and other constitutional protections.”
If “we” are to make such sacrifices, what about “them”? Nuke them!
"Human potential" demanded for war
War cannot be waged without infringing on the rule of law and our own liberties – or what’s left of them. This might be supportable if, in the West, we had close to minimal states which, with a little more power, would still be bearable. But this has not been the case for some time. Bertrand de Jouvenel noted how Franklin Roosevelt was already able to consider citizens as “human potential” available for war.(3) We must be much more reluctant to see our states go to war now than we were in the early or mid 20th century.
The fact that, as Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918,(4) “war is the health of the State” is shown by its morbid attraction to the rhetoric of war, and not only in military affairs. The “war on drugs” is only one instance, albeit a most revealing one. If you ask “war” to healthfinder, the feds’ health search engine (“Your guide to reliable health information”), one of the seven references is about “Waging War on Lung Cancer,” another one about “War on Fad Diets.”(5) The rhetoric of war is a convenient weapon to enslave individuals at the service of the state.
Another reason why war must pass a higher hurdle than ordinary law enforcement by the state is the tribal sentiment that it stimulates and on which it thrives. It’s “us” against “them.” The “nation” is the modern equivalent of the tribe, although religion also has a high closed-society potential. Even if it can conceivably be used to defend an open society, war flourishes more naturally in a closed-society setting.
Still another reason why war is generally not an efficient way to protect liberty is related to its retaliation-vengeance dynamics. Foreign civilians bombed in the name of freedom are more likely to become its permanent enemies. And, needless to say, a religious type of war (the Christian West against Islam) would sow the seeds of resentment and confrontation for at least decades to come. Except if we nuke them all … in which case we will be the only barbarians left.
The case of Switzerland must be meditated. This country is, as much as the United States, a symbol of capitalism. A factor that makes the Swiss central state less predisposed to the vicious circle of war violence is certainly its small scale, and its refusal, if not its incapacity, to get involved in actions against foreign civilian populations. It is not clear, though, how the Swiss state could ever deal with terrorist acts of the September-11 type if they were ever directed against its citizens. The answer is, of course, that an isolationist state is much less likely to be faced with this problem; yet, the probability is not zero.
I am not arguing that the September 11 attacks should go unpunished. On the contrary, I think any freedom loving individual wants the guilty and their accomplices, whoever and wherever they are, “dead or alive,” as George Bush said. But we must escape from the logic of war, and use means that are more akin to police operations followed by trials (if the suspects are still alive). As Benjamin Ward wrote, if you don’t want big government, “avoid war and the rumor of war.”(6)
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