September 21, 2001 --
The question before us is how to respond to the atrocities of September 11. First, obviously, the government must visit heavy retribution on those directly responsible for the attack and on those states and organizations that aided them. That is a matter of justice. Secondly, Washington (by bringing unbearable pressure on state sponsors of terrorism) must smash Islamic fundamentalism's global terrorist network in order to deter future attacks. That follows from the government's obligation to minimize the number of attacks on its citizens' rights. Thirdly, the government must put in place defensive mechanisms and the means to cope with the consequences of large-scale terror attacks if they should recur. That is a matter of the government's obligation to thwart attempted attacks on rights or at least to minimize the extent of damage from such attacks.
How can these tasks be carried out?
Consider, first, the domestic side of the war. The most important task is to render America secure, for it would be a grave mistake to believe that no more attacks are coming. The enemy could still do significant damage through chemical or biological attacks, or strikes at critical infrastructure. Such attacks would not be as dramatic as the events of September 11, but they could have infinitely greater consequences. And, at this point, the enemy has nothing to lose. The U.S. response will be total anyway.
Therefore, we must turn to security experts to tell us what we can do to defend ourselves, and to emergency management experts to tell us how to deal with the aftermath of attacks. But one question that political philosophers may rightly ask is: Do we, in preparing to defend ourselves against attacks, face a dichotomy between freedom and security, in which the former necessarily retreats in pursuit of the latter?
The evidence is that a trade-off exists, but it is not a straight trade-off. Much can be done that does not touch demonstrable individual rights. The reason is that, in this type of war, the dichotomy is more often between security and convenience. As one frequent traveler put it, "by the time you get on a plane in Tel Aviv you've been strip searched so many times you start to enjoy it." In any event, the Objectivist theory of human rights does not specify what security procedures can and cannot be incorporated into the contract terms of an airline ticket or a job offer. In my line of work, I go through several security checkpoints every day and never feel "less free" because of it. Sometimes I am inconvenienced, sometimes even annoyed. But I know it is done for my protection, so my values remain unchallenged, and, most importantly, my freedom to complain about it is sacrosanct.
Occasionally, the threat alleged is not even to convenience but to some fashionable liberal notion of what "freedom" comprises. The New York Times quotes the Leftist law professor Bruce Ackerman of Yale University as complaining that some measures being discussed—namely, surveillance cameras—would threaten our "anonymity." Is anonymity a right of the individual? Were we less free when communities were smaller and everyone knew everybody else? People might have been subjected to more ostracism and opprobrium, but that is a matter of moral judgment, not coercion.
Undoubtedly, some proposals will curb current liberties. Speaking for myself, however, the recent assault on America has had a significant clarifying effect. Since last Tuesday, some of my "go to the wall" libertarian views, such as opposing a national ID card, have seemed trivial. The potential for government abuse is present, but the need for providing security is real. So long as there are adequate checks and balances, so long as the enabling legislation is circumscribed and directed, the measures currently being touted seem to be a reasonable cost.
The British, after all, have survived heightened safety measures for 30 years in the face of IRA terrorism and have kept their freedoms largely intact. Freedom House, in its ranking of countries' protection of civil liberties, places Great Britain in the second tier of states, along with Germany and Japan. Even Israel, though necessarily under a more stringent security regime, maintains both an outpost of democracy and a reasonable respect for civil liberties. Freedom House rates Israel a perfect 1 for political rights and a 2 for civil liberties (upgraded this year from a 3).
Can political philosophers say anything about drawing the line between security and freedom? Because the United States is a country with a written constitution, we can say that the rule of law demands that the Supreme Court strike down patently unconstitutional curbs on freedom. Beyond that, however, it would seem that philosophers can say only this: Our representatives must listen to security experts and civil libertarians, and then decide democratically what constitutionally permissible regulations they believe our national security requires. It is a matter capable of dispute.
Now, what about the offensive side of the battle? The "war on terrorism" will actually be a mixture of war and foreign policy with a shifting line between them. If any nation-state is found to be behind the September attack, then the primary task will be simple: wage war against it. But even in that case, the president has now said, the war on terrorism will also be a war on terrorist organizations, and that will be more difficult, for these organizations are hidden, scattered, and hard to reach. Coercion by regular forces will probably be of little use against them. The means of punishing them will therefore have to be specialized, involving intelligence agencies, law-enforcement agencies, special operations forces, counterterrorism forces, and foreign operatives. What part each of these will play is a matter for military planners. One obvious tactic, however, would be to locate and seize the global financial assets of the terror groups, which is their lifeblood, the thing that gives them mobility and access. But we should have no illusions: The prosecution of this war against the terrorists will not be in the hands of international bankers. It may involve extremely disquieting tactics: assassinations (which are already being discussed), secret trials (to prove we have the right guys without revealing to other terrorists how we know), and even torture (to avert imminent attacks, say).
A second part of the "war" will be a highly aggressive foreign policy to persuade states to stop sponsoring terrorism.
Conventional military instruments, such as bombers and ground troops, certainly can have a role in persuading reluctant states to cease such behavior (as the 1986 strike on Tripoli did). But even here, raw firepower will have its limits.
Bombing Afghanistan back into the Stone Age would not significantly lower its standard of living. Other states are more vulnerable to military intervention, but Washington will not want to go to war simultaneously with the Taliban plus all seven countries on the State Department's "sponsors of terrorism" list. Fortunately, we have many "means short of war" that can bring powerful pressure to bear on these parties, if used in an uncompromising way. And, should they fail, war is always a last resort.
In summary, then, we can say this: Our government must take seriously the need to protect America from further terrorist attack. To a large extent, that undertaking will be defensive and preventive and will be the work of President Bush's new Office of Homeland Security. But the government must also take the offensive and ensure that the people directly and indirectly involved in perpetrating this atrocity and other terrorist acts spend the rest of their lives on the run and in hiding, always looking over their shoulders until the inevitable day when justice prevails in one form or another. A few commentators have warned that we must not allow terrorists to find martyrdom. For my part, I think that we should help them achieve it.