Jacob G. Hornberger
-- -- The 9/11 attacks
brought to the surface a dilemma that everyone, especially
libertarians, must now confront: whether to choose a pro-empire,
pro-intervention foreign policy or a free society.
No one can deny that we now live in a country in which the
president, on his own initiative, has the omnipotent power to
send the nation into war against any country on earth,
especially given that the war on terror extends all over the
globe. The president and the military have the power to take any
suspected terrorist — foreigner or American — into custody and
torture, abuse, and execute him without due process of law and
trial by jury. The president and the NSA have the power to
wiretap telephones and monitor emails without a judicially
issued warrant. The president, the CIA, and the military have
the power to send missiles into cars and drop bombs into
buildings anywhere in the world, including right here in the
United States, in their attempt to win the war on terror.
Indeed, the president may now ignore any constitutional or
legislative restraints on his power as a “wartime” commander in
How can such powers be reconciled with the principles of a
free society, especially from a libertarian standpoint?
If a government has the power to arbitrarily take anyone into
custody and torture and kill him, how can the citizenry in that
society truly be considered free? Even if there is freedom of
religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the freedom
to vote, and even the freedom to own guns, all such freedoms are
relegated to secondary importance when the government has the
power to arrest, torture, and execute anyone it wants.
As Winston Churchill put it,
The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison
without formulating any charge known to the law, and
particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in
the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all
totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.
Recall the movie Braveheart, which depicted a period
in English history when the English king and his minions
possessed and exercised the right to rape a newlywed bride on
her wedding night. Can anyone imagine the woman’s husband
exclaiming, as his wife was carted away, “At least we can
peacefully protest the king’s actions without being thrown into
jail and at least we have sound money”? (In fact, even the right
of habeas corpus would be ineffective in such a case because the
judge at the habeas corpus hearing would hold that under the law
officials had the right to rape the bride and, therefore, he
would deny habeas corpus relief. Thus, the core problem would
remain — that government officials would possess the power to
Or imagine a suspected terrorist being stretched on the rack
or subjected to waterboarding, screaming, “I have the right to
criticize the government under principles of freedom of speech”
(or even, “I have the right to call my lawyer!”). His torturers
would respond, “Well of course you do. But we have ‘rights’ too
— including the right to arrest, torture, abuse, and kill you
without judicial interference.” Thus, again, the problem lies in
the fact that government possesses the power to arbitrarily
arrest and torture people.
The realities exposed by 9/11
That’s what 9/11 accomplished. It exposed the horrible
reality of what an imperial, interventionist foreign policy has
brought to our nation and the American people. We not only live
in a nation whose government has troops in more than 100 foreign
countries, that is occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, that is
threatening new wars against Iran and North Korea, and that
claims the authority to drop bombs on any country on earth. We
also live in a country in which omnipotent power over the
citizenry by the president, the CIA, and the military is part
and parcel of that foreign policy.
After all, despite the manifest evidence of kidnapping,
torture, and murder of prisoners and detainees at the hands of
CIA agents, how many CIA agents have been brought to account by
either the Justice Department or the Congress? (None.) How many
have been arrested and charged for such crimes? (None.) How many
have been indicted? (None.) The only potential criminal
prosecution of CIA agents is coming from foreign countries, such
as Italy and Germany, where prosecutors are seeking criminal
indictments against CIA agents for kidnapping and conspiring to
torture in those countries. When it comes to the CIA,
unfortunately all too many people get scared, turn away, and
remain silent. That’s what omnipotent government tends to do to
How can a nation whose government has an untold number of
secret agents, operating with secret budgets, following secret
orders, and wielding the authority to kidnap, torture, and
murder with impunity even remotely be reconciled with the
principles of a free society, especially from a libertarian
Some may think that there really isn’t any cause for concern
because most of the suspected terrorists that U.S. officials are
incarcerating, torturing, and killing are foreigners, not
Americans. After all, they’ve arrested, incarcerated, and denied
the right to counsel, due process, and jury trials to only two
Americans — Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. What’s the big deal?
For one thing, freedom is not defined by the extent to which
a wrongful power is being exercised by government but rather by
whether the wrongful power is possessed and able to be
Second, U.S. officials reserve the power to subject all
Americans to the same treatment to which all other suspected
terrorists have been subjected.
Third, to think that the exercise of such power will be
limited to “only” one or two Americans reflects naiveté in the
extreme. The fact is that the feds could have easily treated
Hamdi and Padilla to the same abuse and torture accorded to
suspects at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, or the CIA’s secret
overseas torture facilities. Or they could have transported them
to Syria, Egypt, Jordan, or any other friendly brutal regime for
torture, as they did to an innocent Canadian citizen falsely
accused of being a terrorist. It was only political
considerations that inhibited U.S. officials from subjecting
American terror suspects to the full panoply of mistreatment to
which they have subjected foreign terror suspects. But let there
be one or two more major terrorist attacks in the United States,
and all bets are off: Americans will inevitably witness the full
power of Leviathan unleashed. And if that day comes, all too
many Americans will realize that the time for protest was long
before it became too dangerous to protest.
Some libertarians may be harking back to what may seem to
them to have been the halcyon days of pre–9/11, when it seemed
possible to favor a pro-empire, pro-intervention foreign policy
(euphemistically described as a “strong national defense”) while
favoring libertarianism (i.e., limited government) in domestic
policy. That wasn’t reality — that was just fanciful thinking in
a make-believe world. It was like saying, “I favor lightning but
I’m firmly against thunder.” If one favors a particular
government policy, he embraces the inevitable consequences of
that policy, especially when the policy has been in existence
long enough to produce the results.
The holy-war theory
Some libertarians are now subscribing to the theory that some
conservatives are promoting — that the core problem facing
America is not U.S. foreign policy but rather Islam itself,
which they’re claiming is actually a bigger threat than
communism. Keep in mind that conservatives used the communist
threat to justify the enormous U.S. military empire and
military-industrial complex during the many decades of the Cold
I suspect that deep down such libertarians know that such a
holy-war theory is without foundation. It might even be a
subconscious way to avoid confronting the critical dilemma with
which 9/11 has now confronted people, especially libertarians —
whether to give up hope of a free society by maintaining
allegiance to a pro-empire, pro-intervention foreign policy or
to choose a free society by embracing libertarian principles in
both domestic and foreign policy.
After all, not even President Bush subscribes to the holy-war
justification for the U.S. Empire and its role as an
international policeman, especially in the Middle East.
Moreover, a close examination of the evidence belies the
legitimacy of the holy-war theory.
For example, despite many years of U.S government support for
Saddam Hussein, including delivery of WMDs to him, no Iraqi ever
attacked the United States, even though most people in Iraq are
When U.S. officials turned on Saddam and killed countless
Iraqis in the Persian Gulf intervention, followed by more than a
decade of brutal sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi children, there were still no attacks on the United States
by Iraqis. Even when U.S. official Madeleine Albright publicly
announced that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were
“worth it,” no Iraqis attacked the United States.
Since President Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, there
have been no Iraqi attacks on the United States.
It’s true that Iraqis are killing American troops in Iraq but
there is another more likely explanation than the holy-war one:
Iraqis don’t like foreigners who invade and occupy their
country, killing, maiming, and torturing Iraqi citizens in the
process, any more than Americans would like foreigners attacking
and occupying the United States and killing and maiming
Americans in the process.
Moreover, let’s not forget that the U.S. government is a
longtime supporter of such Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Would U.S.
officials be supporting countries that were waging a holy war
against the United States? Wouldn’t people be protesting that?
Muslims aren’t attacking Switzerland or the Swiss people,
despite the fact that the Swiss are predominantly Christian.
Isn’t it likely that the reason for these non-attacks is that
the Swiss government, unlike the U.S. government, doesn’t meddle
in the Middle East or the rest of the world?
If people of Muslim faith were really waging a holy war,
wouldn’t Americans of Islamic faith be killing Americans of
Christian faith and vice versa right here in the United States?
Yet all of us know that if that were to happen, the killer would
immediately be indicted and convicted for the crime of murder
and that a defense of “holy war” at trial would be rejected by
every court in the land.
There are, of course, fanatical Islamists, but their numbers
are ordinarily too small to be considered a significant threat
to any nation. The problem is that, as many U.S. intelligence
agencies are now pointing out, U.S. foreign policy, especially
the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, has been a dream
come true for the recruiters of such extremist groups. Any
person, regardless of race, color, or religious creed, whose
family is killed, raped, or maimed is likely to be angry at
those who committed such acts.
The fruits of empire and interventionism
The 9/11 attacks exposed what has been going on for many decades and
continues to occur at an ever-increasing pace — the movement of
our nation away from its founding principles of a republic and
in the direction of empire, militarism, and intervention.
Equally important, the reality is that such federal programs as
the “war on terror,” the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan
and Iraq, and the impending attack on Iran, along with the
omnipotent powers that the president, the CIA, the NSA, and the
Pentagon now wield against the American people, are inherent,
integral, inescapable parts of that foreign policy.
Let’s also not forget another essential part of an imperial,
militarist, interventionist foreign policy: out-of-control
federal spending, which in turn brings rising inflation and
taxation. How can those things be reconciled with libertarian
Finally, as U.S. officials often remind us, the war on terror
is perpetual, especially because an interventionist foreign
policy guarantees an infinite supply of terrorists. That means
that people who favor such a foreign policy are, at the same
time, surrendering any hope of ever achieving a free society.
The only way to achieve the free society is through a consistent
commitment to libertarian principles, not only in domestic
affairs but also in foreign affairs.
Thus, libertarians who embrace the U.S. foreign policy that
has held our nation in its grip for so long have one of the most
important decisions of their lives confronting them. By hewing
to two contradictory philosophies — one of freedom and one that
destroys freedom — circumstances have now placed them in a moral
and philosophical quandary. Will they continue hewing to a
pro-empire, pro-intervention foreign policy, thereby giving up
all hope of a free society at home? Or will they choose to
maintain their commitment to libertarianism here in America,
which means rejecting an imperial, interventionist foreign
policy? Or will they simply act as if no choice at all now
The stakes are obviously enormous. As Ludwig von Mises put
No one can find a safe way out for himself if society
is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his
own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the
intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern;
the interests of everyone hang on the result.
Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of
Freedom Foundation. Send him
This article originally appeared in the May 2007 edition
of Freedom Daily.
to the print or email version of Freedom Daily
on "comments" below to
read or post comments
Be succinct, constructive and
relevant to the story.
encourage engaging, diverse and
meaningful commentary. Do not
include personal information such
as names, addresses, phone
numbers and emails. Comments
falling outside our guidelines
those including personal
attacks and profanity are
See our complete
this link to notify us if you
have concerns about a comment.
Well promptly review and
remove any inappropriate
Send Page To a Friend
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have
expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational
purposes. Information Clearing House has no
affiliation whatsoever with the originator of
this article nor is Information ClearingHouse
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)