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September 16, 2003

The Most Important Book Since 9/11


by Anthony Gregory

Anyone interested in the War on Terrorism must read James Bovard's newest book: Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil.

For critics of the War on Terrorism there are two major problems: there's too much information to keep track of, and we risk losing ourselves in the effort.

We owe much to James Bovard for Terrorism and Tyranny, for he has largely solved both of these problems for us. He has constructed with precision and scholarly excellence a narrative of all that Bush has done since 9/11 in the name of fighting terror. Not only does it cover everything from airport security to the War on Iraq, it does each of these topics justice. The writing is dense, the endnotes are invaluable, and the underlying thesis is essential to understanding where the United States is heading. While reading the book you'll learn and be reminded of the insanity that has emerged in the last two years, and by the time you're done you'll be recommitted to the cause of resisting that insanity.

The book's beginnings present a survey history of United States antiterrorism policy in the Middle East under Reagan. While the topic can only fall under so much exploration in one chapter, Bovard does an excellent job in narrating one futile U.S. attempt to stop terrorists with missiles after another. By the chapter's end the reader has lost count of the number of embassy bombings and hijackings, and it becomes clear that while the U.S. government did everything possible to appear vigilant against terrorists, it did little to ensure even the most common sense security precautions at obvious terrorist targets.

Bovard then explains how FBI incompetence and arrogance had the likely effect of allowing the hijackers to murder thousands on September 11, and how the most severe bureaucratic error in American history was rewarded by a glorification of those most responsible. By focusing not on alleged government malice, but rather on the incompetence inherent in bureaucracy, Bovard distances himself from the counterproductive argument that government officials wanted the attacks to happen. This also puts into proper context the way the government responded to 9/11 – blindly increasing its own budgets and complicating its own bureaucracies – revealing that such policies are doomed to failure, regardless of the intentions behind them.

Terrorism and Tyranny then gives a dramatic account of how the Patriot Act was railroaded through Congress without anyone reading it, and with only a perfunctory appearance by Attorney General John Ashcroft at congressional hearings about it. Next, the book presents a bulletproof documentation of the abuses in practically every domestic "antiterrorism" policy: From the government's confiscation of millions of dollars from innocent immigrants without due process; to the harassment of any traveler who dares "smuggle" his own cash to another country; to the de facto suspension of habeas corpus of millions of legal immigrants; to the incarceration of hundreds and stripping of their rights to either trial or council, in some cases not even under a façade of battling terrorism; to the practical obliteration of all Fourth Amendment protections at the say-so of a federal agent; to the molestation of airport patrons and the evacuation of tens of thousands of them over such "security threats" as pairs of scissors found in trash cans; to the hiring of hundreds of federal airport security guards without putting them through any background checks or significant training. The government abuse and ineptitude approaches unbelievable levels through these chapters, which Mr. Bovard documents with nearly 70 pages of footnotes.

The next chapters compare the brutality of terrorists with that of governments. While the Administration claims that the War on Terrorism is a noble crusade against evil, a simple and meaningless devotion to U.S. policy can exempt such unsavory regimes as those in China, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe from criticism – or even earn them subsidies – no matter how many tens of thousands of dissidents they torture or exterminate. Acknowledging the undeniable horror of terrorism, Bovard compares the thousands of innocents who international terrorists have killed to the millions murdered by their governments in a recent ten-year period. He explains the severe danger in trusting governments to suppress terrorism when governments are quite guilty of terrorism themselves.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter is on Israel's War on Terrorism and how the United States has increasingly adopted it as a model. Bovard documents the numerous abuses of the Israeli government in an even-handed, non-inflammatory way, while clarifying that he is not an anti-Semite simply for his critique of Israel. Unfortunately, no matter how well a chapter criticizing Israel is written, no matter how solid its supporting evidence and how tasteful its delivery, there will always be some who liken its sentiments to those of Adolph Hitler. Nevertheless, this chapter is powerful, engaging, fair, and quite helpful in understanding the danger of the United States mimicking the policies of Ariel Sharon.

His chapter on Iraq details fairly well the implications of the UN sanctions, as well as in addresses the controversy surrounding that program. It also gives a strong argument that the Bush administration lied America into war, readily changing its reasons for the military adventure and instigating a widely held and baseless fear that Iraq somehow posed a threat to the United States. The dishonesty and inconsistency of the Bush Administration comes through so well in quotes from presidential press conferences and CIA intelligence reports that Bovard can almost rest and let government officials prove their deceitfulness without the need of any artful commentary. While he could have gone more deeply into the Iraq War – perhaps documenting some specific horrors from U.S. bombing – this chapter is still very compelling.

The last few chapters put everything into context. In the chapter "Bastardizing Freedom," Bovard advances his theory that "it is impossible to understand the long-term political consequences of 9/11 without examining Bush's freedom rhetoric." In the next chapters, Bovard explains how an America more in line with its founding principles should react to 9/11. He concludes that America is on a road to tyranny, and that the long term as well as "immediate threat to Americans' freedom does not stem from a depraved interpretation of the Koran, but from a perverse reading of the Constitution." The government's War on Terrorism, if it continues on its current path, will cause far greater harm to American liberty and security than al Qaeda ever could, while doing very little even to suppress the latter threat, as real as it is.

Does the book have any major weaknesses? Well, people bent on supporting America's current policies might complain that Bovard sometimes cites sources they might not find credible, such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. But he also cites speeches by Bush, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Ridge, as well as officials from the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security Department, and military. And the ineptitude of these officials to keep their stories straight is at times much more convincing of their dishonesty than anything the ACLU could ever say.

One possibly genuine weakness of the book is there's not too much talk about Afghanistan. This is a shame but understandable. Strategically speaking, the book might convince more readers without it. By working in thematic and chronological order, Bovard shows the reader how far the United States has moved from its founding principles in the last two years, from an imperfect republic to an imperial Big Brother. Even many of those lacking sympathy for foreigners will come to realize in the book's first half how much deception the government has used in concealing its abuse of American citizens, so by the time Bovard's chapter on Iraq comes around, the war makers will not seem very credible in their claims on foreign policy. Overall, Terrorism and Tyranny provides a rewind of the last two years that Americans need to stop and see.


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Anthony Gregory is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute, and has written for Rational Review, the Libertarian Enterprise, and LewRockwell.com. Visit Anthony’s webpage for more articles and personal information.

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