Since September 11, a heated debate has taken place over the true motivation for the terrorist attacks. The stakes in the debate are high because of what is implied in the answer: either the U.S. should reclaim its traditional policy of free trade and peace and thereby end its international military interventions, or it should wage unrelenting war against any group or government that resents and responds predictably to U.S. policy.
Most libertarians argue that the attack was a murderously evil response to U.S. wars, trade sanctions, and troop presence in the Middle East and the Islamic world—policies the libertarians have consistently opposed. Ranged against them are neoconservatives who believe that it is inappropriate to discuss the terrorists’ true motives and who prefer instead to ascribe their actions to a generalized hatred of Western civilization and "our way of life."
The libertarian analysis would imply a fast and radical pull-back of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs, starting with its trade sanctions and its troops scattered all over the Islamic world. This approach is not inconsistent with a determined, yet narrowly focused, hunt for the surviving co-conspirators. The neoconservative approach would lead not only to no reduction in foreign adventurism, but to a large and long war throughout the entire Middle East region.
On Thursday before the bombing of Afghanistan, the libertarian analysis received strong support from a most unlikely source. Britain’s Tony Blair released a white paper, a bill of particulars against Mr. bin Laden. This 4,400-word document, released with the approval of the U.S. president, was designed to convince the world that bin Laden is responsible for the attacks on September 11. Those who proffer the report for this purpose cannot at the same time deny the facts alleged therein insofar as they bear on the issue of his motivation.
The report quotes bin Laden himself, speaking on October 12, 1996:
The people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed by the Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators. . . . It is the duty now of every tribe in the Arabian Peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers. Their wealth is booty to those who kill them. My Muslim brothers: your brothers in Palestine and in the land of the two Holy Places [i.e., Saudi Arabia] are calling upon your help and asking you to take part in fighting against the enemy—the Americans and the Israelis. They are asking you to do whatever you can to expel the enemies out of the sanctities of Islam.
Later in the same year, bin Laden said that "terrorizing the American occupiers [of Islamic Holy Places] is a religious and logical obligation."
These words barely need any elucidation. They squarely complain about U.S. support for Israel and about American troops in Saudi Arabia. There is nothing about forcing people in Peoria to abandon Western values and convert to Islam at gunpoint.
The report quotes bin Laden again, in 1998, urging that
. . . the killing of Americans and their civilian and military allies is a religious duty for each and every Muslim to be carried out in whichever country they are until Al Aksa mosque [in Jerusalem] has been liberated from their grasp and until their armies have left Muslim lands. We . . . call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill Americans and plunder their money whenever and wherever they find it. We also call on Muslims . . . to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them. (Emphasis added.)
When asked, in 1998, about obtaining chemical or nuclear weapons, bin Laden said, "Acquiring such weapons for the defense of Muslims [is] a religious duty." (Emphasis added.)
The white paper’s delineation of bin Laden’s prior activities also demonstrates that his primary concern is with specific interventions by the United States into the Middle East and the Islamic world. Al Qaeda is implicated in the attack on U.S. military personnel in Islamic Somalia in 1993 and in two U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in retaliation for U.S. intervention in Somalia. The report quotes bin Ladin’s interview with Time magazine on December 22, 1998, discussing the embassy bombings:
The International Islamic Jihad Front for the jihad against the U.S. and Israel has, by the grace of God, issued a crystal clear fatwa calling on the Islamic nation to carry on Jihad aimed at liberating the holy sites. The nation of Mohammed has responded to this appeal. If instigation for jihad against the Jews and the Americans . . . is considered to be a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Our job is to instigate and, by the grace of God, we did that, and certain people responded to this instigation. . . . Any thief or criminal who enters another country to steal should expect to be exposed to murder at any time. . . . The U.S. knows that I have attacked it, by the grace of God, for more than 10 years now. . . . God knows that we have been pleased by the killing of American soldiers [in Somalia in 1993]. This was achieved by the grace of God and the efforts of the mujahideen. . . . Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God. I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America. (Emphasis added.)
As for the recent attacks, the white paper states:
In the months before the September 11 attacks, propaganda videos were distributed throughout the Middle East and Muslim world by Al Qaeda in which Osama bin Laden and others were shown encouraging Muslims to attack American and Jewish targets. In the run-up to 11 September, bin Laden was mounting a concerted propaganda campaign amongst like-minded groups of people—including videos and documentation—justifying attacks on Jewish and American targets; and claiming that those who died in the course of them were carrying out God's work.
The British report on bin Laden is the most thorough and authoritative statement issued by Western political authorities about his motivations. The report thoroughly supports the libertarian analysis of the political cause of the attacks of September 11. The existential cause of the attacks was, of course, the free will of the perpetrators.
The attack on the World Trade Center ranks among the most evil acts ever committed by human beings—the murder of innocent people involved in peaceful commercial enterprise. That fact, however, did not prevent it from occurring, and it will not prevent similar atrocities from happening again. The chances of persuading bin Laden and the boys—in the next thirty days—that they are evil maniacs who should fatwa themselves to death are zero. The chances of identifying and killing all the Ladenites in the near future are zero. The chances of preventing all further terrorist attacks on Americans are zero.
No matter how many freedoms are compromised, no matter how many wars the U.S. wages, no matter how many people are killed, the only way to reduce terrorism is to immediately and radically curtail military adventurism, stop the belligerence and the violence of sanctions, and adopt a foreign policy of nonintervention and neutrality.
Will doing so hand a victory to the evil demon bin Laden? To ask this question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how characters like bin Laden gained influence in the first place. Without U.S. bumbling and stumbling around the Middle East region for the last fifty years, often violently, and without U.S. support for authoritarian regimes there, malevolent criminals like bin Laden would never have been able to gain influence. He did so by stirring up the Middle East rabble into a frenzy by blaming the U.S. for all the misery there.
Ultimately, however, to the question, is this giving bin Laden what he wants, I say this is a policy we should have regardless of what he thinks. Libertarians and our forebearers have believed in nonintervention for over two hundred years! In an article published by Mises.org on March 20, 2001, I set forth my own views on the subject:
[B]ecause, in the words of Frederic Bastiat, people are not clay, they always react and respond to the state’s use of power against them in ways that result in unintended and negative consequences from the state’s point of view, now fashionably called "blowback" [the CIA’s coinage]. [T]he widespread use of state power erodes private morality, as people learn from the state’s actions and rationalizations that it is acceptable to use force against others to achieve your goals. Unfortunately, the state and its politicians—corrupt, mendacious, rapacious, lascivious, and ruthless—have become the great moral teachers of our time. . . . Globally, our frequent wars and interventions have led only to more war, the expansion of communism, and, more recently, to the scourge of terrorism. . . . So there you have it: a $2.1 trillion tax cut that restores the constitutional republic and dismantles our 140-country, global military empire—the fountain of terrorism, the main stimulus to an insane global nuclear arms race, and the greatest threat to our national security in the twenty-first century." (Emphasis added.)
This is not a unique insight. It has been said again and again, by Washington, Jefferson, Paine, J.Q. Adams, Mencken, Mises, Rothbard, and the entire liberal tradition, which teaches that trade, not violence, is the path to international harmony and human solidarity.
In the end, the real victors in reestablishing a moral and rational foreign policy, consistent with the freedoms we cherish, will be the American republic and the American people. If you doubt it, ask yourself whether you would feel safer and more free with or without the U.S. taking sides in the endless disputes over practically everything in this part of the world.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.