From the start, opponents of the American empire warned that the government could not violate the rights of foreigners without eventually violating the rights of Americans. An excellent example is William Graham Sumner’s post-Spanish-American War classic The Conquest of the United States by Spain. The anti-imperialists were spot-on, and the evidence for their case keeps piling up.
To pick a convenient date, we can start at Sept. 11, 2001, though this hardly provides the only evidence to be drawn from American history. Government abuse of Americans in the name of security began long before al-Qaeda’s crimes. It can be traced to the very dawn of the republic, when the country’s safety was said to be threatened by the Indian nations, Spain, England, France, and Russia. Official American folklore notwithstanding, in statecraft there is almost nothing new under the sun.
We all know what happened after 9/11, an outcome of American-empire building in the Middle East and central Asia. The national-security complex (which includes “private”-sector firms drooling to get at the public trough) pulled all their longed-for police-state methods off the shelf and fused them into the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Act. Empire-spawned terrorism is indeed the health of the state. (The French are now following suit.) The text of the Act wasn’t expansive enough, so government officials did things that even an author and a court said were unauthorized, such as mass collection of telephone data — and let’s not forget warrantless eavesdropping. See Edward Snowden’s revelations for details. While these particular outrages have been reined in somewhat — perhaps; can we really be sure when top officials have been caught lying? — other outrages against our liberty and privacy surely persist. It will take a whistleblower to inform us.
Unfortunately, most people seem unconcerned with government abuse, no doubt because they believe their safety requires the sacrifice of “some” liberty and privacy. They don’t buy Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxim: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” As Roderick Long implies, however, this is poorly framed, since liberty and safety can’t be at odds and hence can’t be traded off against each other: “What we want is not to be attacked or coercively interfered with — by anyone, be they our own government, other nations’ governments, or private actors. Would you call that freedom? Or would you call it security? You can’t trade off freedom against security because they’re exactly the same thing.”
Despite all the post-9/11 violations of liberty, we see that politicians can find room for still more. There’s talk in Washington about mandating government access — “backdoors” — to encrypted online networks, although the Paris attackers apparently did not use encryption and open-source encryption exists. (Think of the potential for breaches of bank, credit-card, and other commercial sites. Think of the potential for government spying.)
And front-running Republican Donald Trump endorses registration of Muslims and the closing of mosques. His crackpot stories about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers and about Syrians trying to sneak across the Mexican border are meant to spread fear and make further liberty violations seem reasonable and necessary.
The relationship between foreign and domestic policy ought to be obvious, but it still eludes many people. When the government attacks foreign populations, members of the victimized group may seek revenge in the perpetrator’s “homeland.” That threat — however slight — in turn offers pretexts for the accumulation of domestic power.
To the extent we are at risk, it is the result of militarism and empire. So people are actually looking to the state to protect them from it.
The question posed by the regime is: How can Americans be kept safe while it pursues militarism abroad. That’s the wrong question. Americans cannot be kept safe under those circumstances because that foreign policy creates domestic danger and an open society is always vulnerable to the sort of attacks committed in Paris.
The question should be: What foreign policy would maximize the safety of the American people?
There is no perfect answer. But there is a best answer, and it is nonintervention — that is, liquidation of the empire.
Militarism abroad is the enemy of tranquility at home.
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. Become a patron today! Cross-posted at the Free Association.