Message to Congress: A War on Terrorism Does Not Mean a War on Liberty

by | Feb 9, 2002 | POLITICS, Terrorism

President George Bush’s State of the Union address told us that legislation passed, expenditures made and troops deployed are just the beginning of our war on terrorism. But shouldn’t we begin to confront the hard-minded question: How much should we “sacrifice” and for how long? To answer at least part of that question, there must […]

President George Bush’s State of the Union address told us that legislation passed, expenditures made and troops deployed are just the beginning of our war on terrorism. But shouldn’t we begin to confront the hard-minded question: How much should we “sacrifice” and for how long?

To answer at least part of that question, there must be a realistic assessment of the risks of further terrorist acts and the attendant expected losses. There is such a thing as over-caution against terrorist acts as well as under-caution. Both can be costly errors. Let’s look at it.

Any knowledgeable astronomer will tell me that there’s a non-zero chance that a meteorite will strike my house. What precautionary steps should I take other than a prayer or two? I’m going to take none because the risks are so small that any precautionary steps I might take would be a waste of resources that might be better spent elsewhere. Clearly, the risks of terrorist attacks are greater than a meteorite hitting my house, but the principle is still the same — namely, we must make realistic risk assessments of a terrorist act before we commit resources to its prevention.

For example, I don’t believe there’s much risk that terrorists will ever again be able to hijack a plane using box cutters or some other sharp object. The reason they got away with it on Sept. 11 was because passengers thought they’d just wind up in Cuba or some other destination. If passengers had known or suspected they’d be flown into the World Trade Center, they would have subdued the hijackers even if a few were injured in the process. Moreover, box-cutter hijackings are even more improbable since the random assignment of sky marshals.

To the extent that there’s little risk of a Sept. 11-type hijacking, the massive resources expended trying to prevent it, including costly passenger hassle and inconvenience, are wasted and might result in terrorist casualties elsewhere. Why? Because the resources used by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prevent Sept. 11-type acts might be better spent elsewhere.

But terrorist casualties elsewhere are of little concern to DOT or FAA officials because the victims of DOT and FAA under-precaution are visible and might result in embarrassment and job loss. The victims of DOT and FAA over-precaution, through wasting resources that might be better spent elsewhere, are invisible. In other words, no one would blame DOT and FAA officials for a terrorist attack in a shopping mall.

Another important cost of the war on terrorism is our loss of liberty. Politicians have always coveted the liberties we hold. The war on terrorism provides them cover and an excuse for encroachment.

For example, in order to dig into our pocketbooks, politicians have always wanted detailed information about us — such as where and how much we bank and invest. Under the cover of anti-terrorism, new bank and security exchange regulations have been written enabling Congress to pry into the business of all Americans. Some Washington politicians have always longed for the day when Americans are forced to carry identity cards — the war on terrorism has provided them cover. We might not be far from the day, a la Nazi Germany, when we’ll be walking down the street and hear someone bark, “Show me your papers!”

Don’t misread me. A clear constitutional duty of the federal government is national defense, and not taking the earnings of one American and giving them to another. We’d have more than enough resources to put into our anti-terrorism battle, while keeping our liberties, if we’d increase the former and decrease the latter.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

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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