Twelve years ago, the late Harry Browne wrote a controversial piece about the September 11 attacks which had occurred one day earlier. He received both intense praise for having the courage to speak out in such a way, and intense scorn for what was perceived as blaming the victim. Over the next week, Browne responded to his critics, and “When Will We Learn?” became a four-part discussion. However, we will focus on the original piece here.
Browne began by stating that the 9/11 attacks were a horrible tragedy, but that people should have seen them coming as a consequence of American foreign policy. He then proceeded to list the offenses committed against various peoples by the regimes of recent presidents, and suggested that such actions have consequences in the form of retaliatory violence. But since no other country can contend with the military might of the United States, their citizens resort to terrorism in an effort to avenge the civilian casualties of loved ones.
Next, Browne considered the 1986 bombing of Libya and the destruction of Pan-Am Flight 103 that followed in 1988, an act of terrorism carried out by Libyans. He used this as an example of how acting to “teach someone a lesson” has the opposite effect of the intended goal, and to reinforce the previous point about actions having consequences.
He then predicted that people would be told that it was necessary to sacrifice liberty to obtain safety from terrorism. Browne suggested a course of action to avoid a future attack like 9/11, namely by adopting a non-interventionist foreign policy and avoiding nation-building schemes. He finished by noting that while some people would attack such a view as “unpatriotic and un-American,” that patriotism without freedom and sanity is unreasonable.
So, how much have we learned in twelve years? Given the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the debacle in Benghazi that followed the intervention in Libya, these lessons do not appear to have been learned by anyone in a position of power. The national security state grew enormously after 9/11, and most Americans accepted government rhetoric about such measures being necessary. But there is hope. The recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that more liberty was sacrificed than anyone knew, and a large number of Americans were and still are justifiably outraged. Also, the American people recently opposed yet another military intervention in Syria by an overwhelming margin. The ruling class may not be learning the true lessons of 9/11, but the common people are, as they are the ones who always bear the real costs of aggression.