Joseph R.


October 19, 2001

Not Exactly World War II,
But Close Enough


By now only a complete hermit could remain unaware of the events of September 11, 2001. A criminal attack by terrorists killed 5,000-6,000 Americans on American soil. No American likes that sort of thing, but there was bound to be some dispute over what to do about it.

The government immediately credited the atrocity to a fellow who is now a household word. They did this on the basis of "evidence" which they have not shared with the public. Tony Blair did pretend to share the "evidence" with Parliament. It soon developed that the case was a series of conjectures and hypotheses – unless there exists further evidence too important to be shared with the mere sovereign stooges – the "public," who are said to be the source of political power in the civilized Western democracies.

This might not be so important by itself. After all, there are many things which are not revealed for many, many years (if ever) to the sovereign people by those who rule in their name. But once the problem of dealing with the terrorist attack was said to require a "war" to be waged by a Homeric coalition of everyone who is for us, against everyone who is against us, we might have expected that various long-standing agendas would suddenly be found absolutely necessary for the success of the "war," or whatever it is.

Police and other agencies have never really liked the Bill of Rights, and under cover of the present emergency they have brought forth their entire wish-list for blowing holes through the first ten amendments. Congress passed a resolution, law, or something, so broad as to put the famous (German) Enabling Act of 1933 in the shade. The President was empowered to do whatever in his judgment he needs to do to accomplish whatever it is he needs to accomplish.

It was not exactly a declaration of war. That would require a well-defined enemy, as opposed to a sort of international John Doe warrant. No one knows if this is a "war," or on whom it was declared, if it was declared.

This is perfect. It restores as a normal state of affairs that lovable grey zone, intermediate between war and peace, about which George Orwell had a few things to say. The leftover Cold War ghouls in and out of the administration must be bubbling over with joy, mumbling "purity of essence." The Strangeloves are back – they never really left – but now they have a reason-for-being so vague and indefinable as to ensure their job security for the rest of the century, provided they can appear to be getting comprehensible results.

They have to do something, so they are bombing Afghanistan. I am not sure that this makes a whit safer. It certainly is a show, however. So much for the institutional reaction-by-formula in government.


The brave, investigative, and critical Free Press chimed in, of course, as predictably as if they were actually on the government payroll. According to Dan, Tom, and Jim, the President grew several meters in stature just by virtue of having a crisis on his hands. Government was back!

Even better, assailed by their inner doubts about not being themselves as wonderful as The Greatest Generation, the gentlemen of the press did their best to proclaim the return of World War II. World War II, most readers will know, represents the highest-ever achievement of human civilization. I am not sure why that is so, but I take it on faith.

A realistic view of World War II is not wanted, and I leave it to one side, before I start asking whether the righteous, even in that war, were really entitled to do literally anything that came into their minds in order to "win" it. I might mention Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and that would never do, what with Dan, Tom, and Jim reliving a different version of the One Good War.


A war against Nobody Specific may run into trouble. There is no scientific way to predict these things. Many in the press maintain that the crimes of September 11 were a surprise attack, just like Pearl Harbor. This isn't quite right. The Japanese, at least, attacked a legitimate military target. The surprise part was bad form, but the American press did not so judge things when Japan launched its surprise attack on the Russian navy at Port Arthur in 1904. That was held to have been very, very clever. No matter.

Neither of the two events should have been a complete "surprise" to anyone who paid attention to the news, either in 1941 or 2001. But many in the press have ordered us not to look at anything behind that curtain. Nothing before December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001 has any bearing on the events of those days. To think every crime has its own historical background is to "justify" it, or so we are asked to believe. I quite agree. One mustn't go around making fine distinctions. There is a terrible danger of learning something.

No, indeed, far better to have ID numbers tattooed on our noses and do all that we are told by the responsible authorities. You remember the responsible authorities don't you – the people who didn't resign when they failed to defend actual citizens of the United States in their actual territory? It's hard to account for that. Maybe they were off defending large abstractions or special interests.

Let us therefore give these failures all the expansive powers they now say they need to do what they couldn't manage to do with the ample powers they already had. Further, let them rebuild and run the entire economy. They do so well in that area, too. Indeed, I can hardly think of anything they can't do, should they put their minds to it.

All that stands in the way is our somewhat tired tradition of republican liberty, constitutional law, and local self-government. But such things are the merest trifles in an emergency. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is quoted as saying that we may have to judge these things more along the lines of the international laws of war than in terms of that old 18th Century grocery list. And who is better placed than a Supreme Court Justice to make such a call?

We mustn't let 18th Century prejudices stand in our way, especially when those views were "antigovernment" delusions held by terrible white males, some of whom were doubtless slaveholders. Still, it does seem odd for a Justice to deliver such an opinion – odd, I mean to deliver it, but also odd to have it. If she does indeed hold such views, might that not bode ill for her ability to fairly adjudicate cases arising under the emergency legislation? And does publicizing such an opinion not perhaps go beyond the scandal about what Chief Justice Taney allegedly whispered to President-elect Buchanan in early 1857 about an upcoming case?


Only someone with a pessimistic view of political life could worry about giving people who want power all the power they want. William Henry Chamberlin was one such doubter. He wrote in December 1940 – a year before the famous surprise and the ensuing Good War – that "I am depressed by the many preliminary indications that an alleged antifascist crusade is far and away the most probable route to the establishment of some kind of fascism in America."1

Chamberlin compounded his sins by criticizing the strategic vision of some of the more ardent interventionists. He wrote:

"I am anticipating the day when the possession of Tibet and Afghanistan will be represented as vitally necessary to the security of Kansas and Nebraska. There is no logical end to this elastic conception of 'security' short of the conquest of the whole world."2

But, pessimistic as he was, Chamberlin could never have foreseen that, down the road, US policy-makers could manage to create a situation in which his example, meant to be farfetched and absurd, might seem plausible. But there I go again, speaking of causation, implying that one thing or another took place before September 11. We mustn't worry about that.

Far better to "invade the world" – as Murray Rothbard once put it – in order to feel secure. To do otherwise would be to revive such dusty old phantasms as an informed republican citizenry and an ancient constitution. Even worse, we might have to take a critical look at fifty years of foreign meddling. That might be quite enlightening, but we mustn't alarm the sort of people who confuse understanding with justification.


  1. William Henry Chamberlin, "War – Shortcut to Fascism," American Mercury, LI, 204 (December 1940), p. 392.
  2. Ibid., p. 399.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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