by Harry Browne
September 17, 2001

In my previous article, I pointed out that killing innocent people is terrorism, no matter who does it – freelance terrorists, an international conspiracy, a foreign government, or our government. It would be wrong for our government to respond to this week's tragedy by committing further acts of terrorism against innocent foreign people.

Find the terrorist conspirators and punish them – yes. Bomb innocent people – no.

Yesterday I commented on some of the common themes we're hearing now to justify rash action by our government against foreign countries. Here are some more examples of what I've received in my mail:

Civil Liberties

"I don't mind giving up some more of my liberty in order to put a stop to these despicable acts."

I understand your sentiments, but I respectfully disagree with them – for two reasons.

First, you have no idea what liberties are going to be taken from you. And whatever they are, you can have no expectation of ever getting them back – even if the underlying problem goes away completely. For just one obvious example, income tax withholding was instituted as a war measure in 1942, and it is still with us today.

Second, taking away our liberties rarely achieves the goals used to justify the new oppression. Because of the Drug War, our government now rummages through your bank's records, looking for suspicious transactions you may have entered into; you and your property can be searched and seized without a warrant, without being convicted of anything, without even being accused of anything. And yet drugs are as widespread today as when these intrusions were put in place.

It's easy to say you support intrusions that you believe aren't likely to affect you personally. But I can assure you that any invasion of civil liberties will affect you more than they do the truly guilty (who will quickly learn about the invasions and how to circumvent them).

World War II

"What about the situation in the 1930s, where the British under Chamberlain tried to appease rather than oppose Hitler, with horrible results?"

Many historians believe that if Chamberlain hadn't signed the Munich pact in 1938, but had instead gone to war immediately with Germany, an unprepared England would have been defeated easily. Instead, the delay gave England time to get ready to resist Hitler – and even then, a better-prepared England just barely survived.

But "Munich" has become an all-purpose cliché to justify striking out violently against any foreign power that displeases our politicians: "If only Hitler had been stopped at Munich!" (as though at the time anyone had the resources to stop him). We need something more substantial than clichés to prevent future terrorist attacks.

"There are people like Adolf Hitler who are pure evil. You can't hide your head in the sand and pretend they don't exist. Our government must intervene overseas to root them out – just as we did in World War II."

There are people with diseased minds in every part of the world – from your neighborhood right on up to heads of state. Once you accept the idea that a preemptive strike is justified, where do you stop?

It is easy to cite World War II as an example of our government's proper intervention in world affairs – but only if you start the story in the 1930s, just as people are starting the terrorist story at last Tuesday.

In 1917 World War I was winding down to a close. Germany was suing for peace. A negotiated settlement was close, and the world could have returned to its prewar borders and peace. But it was not to be.

At that point Woodrow Wilson took America into the conflict. That intervention changed history irrevocably for the worse. Millions of fresh American soldiers streamed into Europe – tipping the balance of power and overwhelming an enemy exhausted from three years of war. Germany and Austria surrendered, the German emperor fled to the Netherlands, and the Allies imposed devastating conditions upon a defeated Germany.

America's action transformed a functioning Germany with Kaiser Wilhelm on the throne into a prostrate Germany eager for revenge. And so a nation of great artistry that had produced the likes of Goethe and Wagner was willing to accept a dictator who promised to help them get even.

The humanitarian spirit that propelled America into a war to "end all wars" laid the groundwork for two of history's worst murderers – Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Although no one can say for sure, it seems very likely that if America had stayed out of World War I there would have been no World War II. And without that war and without a Soviet Union, there would have been no Cold War, no Korean War, no Vietnam War. The 20th century wouldn't have been an era of perfect peace, but it would have avoided being history's bloodiest 100 years.

Could Woodrow Wilson – or anyone else – have foreseen all this in advance?

No, and that's the point. Once you embark on the use of force – for any purpose – you have no idea what will fly up out of Pandora's box.

If you don't look for the causes that precede the events, you have no hope of ever preventing a repetition of the events.

What the terrorists did last Tuesday was wrong. But if we don't inquire into the background, and instead go off around the world on a holy Jihad of our own, we will unleash consequences none of us can predict. But we can be almost positive that they won't be to our liking.

"Don't you think that if we were to withdraw from the Mideast, that eventually some Arab dictator would unite the Arab-Islamic world (violently) and pose a real threat to us?"

Arab dictators aren't going to give up their fiefdoms to a single ruler. Nasser tried it with the United Arab Republic, but it lasted only a year or two. Bureaucrats in Europe love a central authority because it gives them more dictatorial power. But that isn't likely to happen in the Middle East.

And what you suggest could be possible anywhere in the world. Does that justify the U.S. running the entire world? (Speaking of a single dictator!)

"Isn't it occasionally right to intervene on the behalf of people that are being massacred, such as in Serbia?"

In a free country, you should be free to send money – or even yourself – to any country in the world to aid any cause you believe in (which, incidentally, isn't completely legal under federal law today). But the American government shouldn't use your money to intervene or stir up resentments for causes you may not believe in.

"The world is our business, we all live here. Should people be suffering in East Timor or Iraq or Ethiopia/Eritrea and we just stand by and let it happen if we can do something? I don't think so. Taking more responsibility for all the people of this planet and all the nations of the world would be a better stance."

That should be your choice. You should be free to help anyone anywhere in the world. But our politicians should not have the power to inflict violence on people in other countries in your name – making you a target of retribution.

"We are a world power and we must act like one. This means being unpopular. This means intervening in the world because we have a responsibility to the world."

And it means having people attack us violently – no matter how many security measures are taken and no matter how many liberties you give up. Is that what you want?

"You speak of our government meddling in other people's affairs. Give some specific examples."

Our government has been giving money and military hardware to prop up dictators for over fifty years – including people like Manuel Noriega of Panama, whom our government then kidnapped and put in prison in America. And supporting the very Afghanistan government that supposedly today is harboring Osama bin Laden. Although a lot of the support for dictators was explained as a way of fighting communism, it continues today. Yes, I know that often the people who eventually replace the dictators are just as bad – but that doesn't justify our government giving your money to either the dictators or their replacements.

Did you know that our government still gives foreign aid to Afghanistan? Yes, the same country Bill Clinton attacked with Cruise missiles.

And we have troops stationed in almost a hundred countries even today.

If dictators took over America, how would you feel about foreign countries that helped keep those dictators in power? How would you feel if foreign troops were stationed in your city?

Do you really think there's anything strange about foreigners who love McDonald's but hate our government?

Harry Browne was the 2000 Libertarian presidential candidate. You can read more of his articles at, and his books are available at

Back to Home Page | Contact Us