The destruction of the World Trade Center supposedly “changed everything.” In reality the attack was the predictable outcome of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, though few Americans realized that at the time. The 1990’s were years of relative peace and prosperity. The sudden end of the Cold War had left the war party without an easily identifiable foreign menace to crusade against, and neither the incompetent Iraqi Army nor demonized little Serbia would shake Americans out of their sense of security. For most, the 1990’s were “normal.” There were no great campaigns against tyranny (only relatively small ones), no major social crusades (only failed ones), and no great expansion of government (only slow and steady growth).
Unfortunately, this normalcy was illusory. Government involvement in health care was fostering the conditions that would lead many to support more government involvement in the future. The Federal Reserve’s inflationary policies were laying the foundation for a bust that the government would use as a pretext to massively expand its regulatory powers. And the government’s imperialism in the Middle East was spurring the growth of anti-American terrorist groups.
The illusion of normalcy was shattered on 9/11. Because the American people had long ignored the government’s actions in the Arab world, they were shocked and confounded by the horrors of 2001 and credulously accepted George Bush’s absurd assertion that the terrorists hated us for “our freedom.” Since then, the war party has capitalized on the public’s continued fear and ignorance to shape the public discourse on war, terrorism, and national defense. Because of this, and not because of any threat that al-Qaeda poses, America is far less free and less secure than it was before the attacks.
The war hysteria that characterized “9/12 America” has slowly—very slowly—abated. Only around a third of the public thinks that the war in Iraq was worth it and that there still should be troops there, and most agree that the U.S. is engaged in too many wars. There’s even budding skepticism of militarism amongst some on the right. But the war party has succeeded in shaping the debate. Most people fatalistically believe that 9/11 did “change everything,” that for whatever reason the world is just more dangerous today, and that the military and police are beyond reproach no matter what they think of homeland security and the wars. As long as Americans continue to accept these premises, the United States will continue to develop into a militaristic police state.
Such a course is not inevitable. Most Americans would prefer to go about their everyday lives undisturbed by political events. Most would prefer, if they thought it was possible, to go back to that 9/10 mentality where they didn’t have to worry about terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, most don’t think such a mentality is possible anymore, largely because the hardcore contingent of red-state fascists who were well represented at the most recent Republican debate still hold a powerful grip on political discourse.
During that debate, Rick Santorum accused Ron Paul of “blaming America” for the 9/11 attacks. When Dr. Paul tried to explain his position, Santorum and Gingrich whispered to each other and snickered, and part of the crowd booed belligerently.
No one wants to be booed. No one wants to be laughed at. And no one wants to be seen as unpatriotic. So the easy thing to do for most Americans who don’t want to be bothered by politics is to keep quiet. But then when someone does have the courage to speak out—like Ron Paul—that person seems strange, and threatened members of the establishment can label him a “kook” or an “extremist.” And no one wants to be a kook…
Also during the debate, Newt Gingrich reminded viewers that “there are people out there who want to kill us.” Since changing the government’s foreign policy is completely out of the question for him, he argued that the already bloated Department of Homeland Security needs to be further expanded. This is exactly what supporters of that bureaucracy have been arguing for years, and they have been getting their way—the DHS’s budget has almost doubled since 2003. And as it has grown, so has the number of people it either directly or indirectly employs. Not only does this create a vested interest in favor of the expansion of the police state, it helps normalize the institution. And once people begin to see the existence of a certain agency as normal and inevitable, it will be easier for the war party to marginalize their critics.
In 1947, for example, when Bill Buckley was defending the idea that the United States needed a huge military establishment to fight the Soviets, he at least called the newly created CIA and the newly consolidated Defense Department what they were—part of a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” But during the last presidential election, long after the Soviet threat had vanished, Mitt Romney felt so comfortable that these institutions should be a normal part of American life that he chuckled to a Florida radio host, “I sure am laughing at Ron Paul. I got to tell you, anybody that says we got to get rid of the CIA, and the FBI, and that the reason we’re attacked by Jihadists is because of us, is a guy who deserves to have a little bit of humor come his way.”
What has changed so fundamentally about the world since the days before the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security, when Americans had no reason to fear foreign terrorism? Many people think that the advance of technology has made the world more dangerous. Echoing those statist economists who blithely call laissez-faire principles “horse and buggy economics,” a frequent refrain for people arguing against the noninterventionist foreign policy of the founders is that, “We don’t live in George Washington’s times.” Such replies are not so much arguments as the admission that one has no argument. It is true; we don’t live in George Washington’s times. But what implication does that fact have? As Murray Rothbard wrote, “There is no necessity whatever for morality or political philosophy to change every time technology improves. The fundamental relations of men…are always the same, whatever the era of history.” Changes in technology may affect particular problems in the realm of security, but politically-motivated violence has been part of human society since the dawn of recorded history. Nothing was stopping someone from gunning down Thomas Jefferson in one of his unescorted walks around Washington, and nothing was stopping a Guy Fawkes-type from blowing up Congress. These things didn’t happen before the Civil War because the federal government was small and, by modern standards, had few responsibilities. There was no reason to engage in terrorism in the hopes of influencing its policies.
What has changed is the nation’s dominant political ideology and, as a result, the structure and scope of its government. Thanks to the idea that government experts can run the economy and promote social justice and that armies can build nations and export democracy, the federal government has grown to immense proportions. And along the way, it has made many enemies. This is the source of the present terrorist threat. It’s not that decades of war and police statism have failed to make America safer. These policies are the reason America is in danger in the first place. It follows then, that the best way to undermine terrorism is not to embark on a deadly utopian campaign to “end evil,” or to send the military to the far corners of the world pursuing every Muslim who raises “a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda.” The solution is to stop taking sides in bitter conflicts that have nothing to do with us, and to deal with such threats that do come along on an individual basis within the perimeters of the rule of law.
During the First World War—an example of a bitter conflict that had nothing to do with us if there ever was one—a wave of unprecedented war hysteria swept the country. The government instituted conscription, cartelized the economy, raised taxes, inflated the money supply, and jailed dissenters. After the war ended, Warren Harding ran for president with the promise that his administration would bring about a “return to normalcy.” In office, he let Wilson’s dream of American participation in the League of Nations die and concluded separate peaces with Austria and Germany; he pushed for the reduction of the world’s navies at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22; he pardoned Eugene Debs and dozens of other political prisoners; and he cut taxes and regulations in the face of the recession of 1921.
Old progressives and former members of Wilson’s administration, of course, opposed Harding. Many wanted to prolong the wartime controls into peacetime so they could remake the country to their liking. The former head of the War Industries Board, Bernard Baruch, wanted to preserve the Board’s cartelizing policies so industry could remain mobilized for “social needs.” John Dewey was convinced that the “success” of planning during the war had discredited the principles of laissez faire and that the new era of public control over the economy could never be undone. Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, authored a plan that would have expanded wartime censorship into outright government control of radio.
But with the “threat” of the German and Austrian Empires gone, Wilson and his allies overplayed their hand. No longer could the progressives appeal to a “national emergency” to push through their plans. The public’s war hysteria had abated, and “a return to normalcy” sounded much better to most people than continuing Wilson’s crusade to establish the United States as the policeman of the world. Running against a Wilson disciple in 1920, Harding received 60% of the popular vote in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.
The genius of the current “War on Terrorism” is that “terrorism” can never be fully defeated, and the threat of attack can always be used to rally support for the state. George Bush himself admitted that “victory” in this ill-defined war is impossible. In an interview with Matt Lauer in 2004, he bluntly conceded that there will be no “definite end” and that, “I don’t think you can win it.” In other words, the war can go on forever, and government planners can maintain their hold on society indefinitely.
So while the public is getting tired of the wars and the police state, because so many have accepted the basic premises of the war party’s narrative, real opposition has been slow to form. The solution lies in widening the narrow perimeters of political debate. The only national figure trying to do this is, of course, Ron Paul. The better his presidential campaign does, the better for liberty. The more people that hear that bringing all the troops home, ending the Patriot Act, and abolishing the TSA are actually possible alternatives, the better the chance is for a return to a real, sustainable normalcy.