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The Real Danger Of Terrorism


    In the wake of the tragic events of Tuesday, it is critically important that Americans not let themselves be goaded into acceptance of new infringements of civil liberties, some of which have already, not 24 hours later, been proposed or imposed.

    50 years ago, Mao Tse Tung explained that the greatest success in destabilizing or degrading a nation could be had by stimulating, through terrorist means and otherwise, reactive countermeasures from the existing government. Such countermeasures either so offend the people as to lead to increasing distrust of the government, if not popular support for revolution; or cause the evolution of the existing state into a character more pleasing to the terrorist-- insular, authoritarian, and lacking the strength and vision available only to free and individually sovereign people.


    As Tuesday’s tragedy unfolded, much discussion revolved around the behavior of this official or that official as to the effect it might have on a potential national panic, in the context of terrorized crowds rushing for the exits and trampling the unfortunate. This was absurd, of course… unless any given individual was in a struck building they were glued to a TV, radio, or computer monitor. The only real danger of immediate tragic overreaction sprang from the officials and commentators themselves who, by speculating publicly as to the identity of the perpetrators of this heinous crime, might fan some hothead into targeting the perfectly innocent due to coincidence of ethnicity or national origin.

    Such juvenile and mechanical discussion of ‘panic’ was inappropriate, but real dangers of panic DO exist, and they lie in the impulse to heed the call for diminishment of freedom for safety’s sake.

    As Ben Franklin famously and futilely warned: "Those who give up an essential liberty for a temporary safety deserve neither the liberty nor the safety," to which I add, "and will have neither".  A government in possession of sufficient power-- whether by legal fabrication, popular custom and tradition, panicked clamor or outright usurpation-- to make its citizens safe from adversity or malice is itself thereby the greatest danger to their wellbeing.

    Already Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has issued new "security" directives involving additional hindrances associated with air travel more draconian than the last batch fastened in place in the wake of the TWA 800 explosion. Remember that one? The government eventually concluded-- despite vigorous arguments by eyewitnesses and independent researchers to the contrary-- that that particular tragedy WAS NOT a terrorist act, yet the anti-terrorist impositions, such as the insistence at the ticket counter that each traveler show picture ID to a clerk, remain, as do other illiberal and tragically but predictably ineffective measures.

    Each of these is seemingly insignificant, and appear a small price to pay for quieting whatever demon to which it is offered up; little hindrances easily thrown aside at need. But together, like the thousands of strings placed upon the sleeping Gulliver, they bind down the giant and make of him a subject. It is not that those who would overreact intend to threaten our fundamental liberty, they just seek to appear purposeful and decisive. But not only do these strings never go away, they condition us and our children to the habits of the unfree. In time someone will awaken to the fact that there are real reins of power available to be grasped in a land of people accustomed to surrender freedom to the voice of authority, and then it will be too late to protest or reconsider.

    The only measure needed to have prevented this week’s horror would have been solid, locked doors to the aircraft cockpits and some simple policies relating to access. What we will get instead will be much more (and much less). Thus will America shrink under the assault, to the satisfaction of our enemies.

    If again, as has become our habit, we allow ourselves to be thus led to accept little tyrannies in response to the extortion of the deranged, what will be the next stimulus to which we are subjected? There was rumor of a car bomb at the State Department during the chaos on Tuesday-- happily it was untrue. But what if there had been one? Would we then offer up the freedom of our cars? The mass transit boosters and anti-"urban sprawl" types would love that. Maybe, if it is proven yet again that we can be pushed to sacrifice our liberties in the face of danger, one of them will undertake to nudge us toward those favored policies with their own car.

    There is an old aphorism, "Desperate times call for desperate measures." It is commonly deployed by the fearful who seek to justify their effort to bind down their fellows in order to give themselves a sense of security; it is essentially a version of the moral-relativist proposition that the ends justify the means, and the aroma of it will be much in the air over the next several months. William Pitt gave us the appropriate reply more than 200 years ago: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." We must never forget that the inconveniences, or even risks, attendant upon respecting our heritage of liberty are the price we pay for real civilization.

    None of this is to say that there is no appropriate reaction to the evil outrage visited upon the country and the direct victims. Terrorism is war by other means, and should call forth a harsh, unilateral retaliatory military response as quickly as accurate targets can be identified. If a nation was a participant, it should be subjugated; if individual actors can be identified, they should be executed. But it is certain, whatever else may be true, that American liberty is not responsible for this act, rather, it is another potential victim of this act. That treasure beyond price cannot, however, be slain by others, no matter the depth of their malice. Let us take care not to give them their victory through self-inflicted wounds.


© Peter E. Hendrickson