The Immorality of a Self-Defense Consensus

by | Sep 21, 2001

The enemy of September 11, 2001 is not a military foe boastful of his power. It is a tiny rat that hides under a rug in the free country it wants to destroy. That America asked for the co-operation of the world to exterminate this rat is the consequence of a grave moral problem: America’s […]

The enemy of September 11, 2001 is not a military foe boastful of his power. It is a tiny rat that hides under a rug in the free country it wants to destroy. That America asked for the co-operation of the world to exterminate this rat is the consequence of a grave moral problem: America’s inability to proclaim its own right to self-defense.

The question is: do people who value life, liberty, and the pursuit of prosperity understand that they have a right to defend themselves against people who want to kill them? If the answer is yes, then a powerful, free country defends itself. If no, then it seeks consensus, at first with allies and then with enemies, and it proceeds only with their agreement. So far, America has taken the latter path.

Consider how a consensus is built. To search for consensus one must address the values of potential members. If this is not done on principled terms it becomes unprincipled and pragmatic. What will other countries think? What incentives can we offer? Should we lift economic sanctions or offer aid? If we support Pakistan then what about India? The standard becomes “what will they think?” rather than “what is right?”

The values that such a consensus operates under will not be the highest convictions of the philosophically best members, but rather a common denominator acceptable to all. The worst will not strive to reach the best; the best will lower themselves to obtain the consent of the worst. In the present context the consensus will be formed in terms other than the defense of America.

In this way the self-defense of the freest, most powerful nation on earth becomes a matter of permission and not of right.

The final end of this policy is to ask our enemies to co-operate. The warlord who seized power in Pakistan agrees to co-operate with our request to fly over his country. This warlord has nuclear weapons. His country, which hijacks Indian jets, has a large fundamentalist population. The Taliban was created in this country. Its government is their biggest supporter. All the technological, social, political, and religious conditions are in place for the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. We ask for his co-operation.

A ranking US Senator defends our request of Iran to co-operate against terrorists. Iran’s history speaks for itself. The fact that it is working with Russians to build nuclear weapons is chilling. But the senator’s response is straight from an unprincipled mind: all this is irrelevant. The Mullahs of Iran will help us since they hate Bin Laden. It is sometimes useful, he claims, to use one enemy to fight another.

Recall that the US once propped up Sadam Hussein in Iraq because he would be useful against Iran. We armed Iran and Afghanistan because we thought them to be useful against the Soviets. We pumped millions of dollars into the Soviets during World War II, of course, because they were useful against the Germans. In each case we built an ad hoc consensus of pseudo-allies. In each case, they quickly targeted us.

Ultimately we turn to the worst of our enemies. Our demand to Afghanistan to turn over Bin Laden confirms the legitimacy of their government and gives them a way to avoid military assault. But they responded predictably: by threatening us! Afghanistan-quoted in the New York Times as asking us not to attack because they are so poor-where the life expectancy is 42-where women are enslaved to men-where people are stoned for religious crimes-where they live in biblical-age hovels and scratch at the soil-threatened physical attacks against the US with impunity. We fear the revenge of their consensus more than they fear ours.

It is of course horribly wrong to ask for co-operation from our enemies. But the principle is wider. Our existence, and our protection of it, must never be made a matter of consensus or coalition in any form, even of friends.

When the Founders of America declared their independence they did not ask the permission of the world. They declared their independence, they stated their reasons, and they fought. They did not ask the very people who were assaulting them. They assumed that their friends would agree, if they had any. They understood the moral rightness of their cause, and they acted accordingly. Would that we could do as much.

To return to the values of the Founders we must declare our inalienable right to exist and to defend ourselves unilaterally. Then we must act on it. After this principle is re-established we can ask who our friends are. Those who join us will value freedom and understand the need to defend it. Any coalition will be based on proper principles. If our enemies reverse their positions from fear then we can approach them from a position of strength. We will be stronger, and safer.

Our enemy today can’t even feed his people, let alone build modern weapons. In a pitched battle he would have no chance-unless we arm him first. Yet there may be no pitched battle. We are as disarmed today as if we threw our weapons into the sea. We disarmed ourselves when we accepted the idea that our own right to defend ourselves is not an absolute. Can we correct this?

It appears not. To this point the message to the world is loud and clear: America will never respond with immediate force to any attack. The result will be a press conference, prayer, shared pain, promises of arrest and trial, review of FAA regulations on plastic knives, and inquiries of our enemies as to whether we might please use their airspace to fight the terrorists they have armed. This is what the land of the free and the home of the brave now asks of Iran.

John David Lewis (website) is a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Duke University. He has been a Senior Research Scholar in History and Classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and an Anthem Fellow.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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