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Liberty, Security, and Terror


“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It would be nice if Benjamin Franklin’s famous aphorism were as widely believed as it is quoted. I doubt that Sen. Lindsey Graham and his ilk would express disagreement, but one cannot really embrace Franklin’s wisdom while also claiming that “the homeland is the battlefield.” (The very word  homeland should make Americans queasy.)

If we were to take Graham literally, all of America would look as the Boston suburbs looked last Friday — but even worse, because the government would be monitoring everyone’s reading and web browsing lest it miss someone becoming “radicalized” in the privacy of his own home.

Who would want that? Is it a coincidence that virtually every dystopian novel prominently features a police force indistinguishable from an army in combat and 24-hour surveillance by the state?

The Boston Marathon bombing obscures the fact that terrorism is actually less common in the United States now than in the past, and that the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist incident are rather small. (For some perspective, see Brian Doherty’s article, “3 Reasons the Boston Bombing Case Should Not Change Our Attitudes About Privacy” and Gene Healy’s “Boston Bombing Suspects Are Losers, Not Enemy Combatants.”)

An open and (semi-) free society cannot realistically expect to eliminate the risk of indiscriminate violence. The cost in liberty and dignity would be way too high — and the attempt would fail. Moreover, the risk of violence perpetrated by our guardians would not be eliminated but augmented.

It’s worth emphasizing that we don’t yet know if the actions allegedly taken by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev qualify as terrorism. (Glenn Greenwald points out that even Alan Dershowitz and Jeffrey Goldberg are not convinced the bombings do qualify.) As commonly used, the word terrorism does not mean merely any violent act that scares people. The Boston Strangler (Albert DeSalvo) terrorized women in the early 1960s, yet we don’t think of that as terrorism. (Greenwald discusses other cases.) Why don’t we regard all mass or serial killers as terrorists? Because in common usage terrorism has a political component. This is also the case for official definitions. (Wikipedia has the run-down.)

For example, see title 22, chapter 38 of the United States Code:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. [Emphasis added.]

And title 18:

The term “international terrorism” means activities that … involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; [and] appear to be intended … to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; … to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or … to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and [which] occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum. [Emphasis added.]

And the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations:

The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. [Emphasis added.]

And, finally, the USA PATRIOT Act:

Activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state, that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. [Emphasis added.]

For the record, the Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorist as a “person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims; esp. a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.” (Hat tip: Gary Chartier.)

You get the idea. These are reasonable, common-sense definitions consistent with common usage. (Note that they exclude the shootings at Fort Hood, since Nidal Malik Hasan’s targets were not noncombatants.) Politically motivated violence against noncombatants needs a term, after all. What’s unreasonable is that the term is not applied to the conduct of the U.S. government or its allies when they target noncombatants for political purposes.

Large-scale indiscriminate violence against noncombatants that is not politically motivated, then, is not terrorism. Someone frustrated by a dead-end life who lashed out violently at a crowd of people would not be counted as a terrorist, according to this usage. Thus DeSalvo, Charles Whitman, and George Hennard, monstrous as they were, were not terrorists.

Perhaps the Brothers Tsarnaev were not terrorists either. We don’t know yet. True, leaks from the interrogation of the heavily medicated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev indicate that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figured in their “radicalization” and bombing plot. He also reportedly said “religious fervor” and a desire to defend Islam were behind their actions. Maybe that is true. But maybe these are rationalizations of their personal failures and envy. (And how reliable are those leaks?) We need to know more — and maybe we’ll never know enough. People and their situations are complex.

What we do know is that we must not let the Tsarnaevs’ crimes snuff out whatever civil liberties are left after the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, and the other abuses ushered in during the fevered aftermath of 9/11. We must ever be vigilant against the predictable efforts of politicians to exploit the bombings to aggrandize their power.

Whether U.S. foreign policy really had anything to do with the Boston Marathon bombings, there are reasons enough to scrap it and to follow strict noninterventionism, since that would cease the daily brutality against Muslims (and others) committed in the name of the American people. One bonus from ending U.S.-sponsored murder and mayhem in the Muslim world is that it would remove a potential reason for violence against Americans.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

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