All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Terror: Against or By Government?

Only the Government Has a Monopoly of Force


Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

Washington is often convulsed by events that have no impact on the rest of America. Not so the Oklahoma City bombing, which, in contrast to so many other actions, dominated nation and capital alike. And understandably so. It is impossible to describe adequately the horror of the terrorist attack, though many people have tried. The picture of bloodied children alone is enough to indelibly imprint upon our society the barbarity of terrorism, with its helpless, innocent victims.

Yet if it seemed like ruled and rulers could come together for one moment, it was only one brief moment. Unfortunately, the reactions in and out of Washington were completely different. Around the country was anger, desire for understanding, and hope for healing. In the halls of the White House and Congress was shock, followed by a race for political advantage and demand for more power. In short, everyone did what comes most naturally to them–citizens worried about their countrymen while politicians worried about their influence.

Consider first the attempt to brand critics of government as contributing to a “climate of hate” in which violence might occur. Needless to say, it is in the interest of presidents, legislators, and bureaucrats alike to discourage criticism. And many have been quick to use the tragedy in Oklahoma City in an attempt to place themselves beyond reproach.

For instance, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ran an ad in The New York Times titled “The Call of Duty.” AFSCME argued that “the people who work in government service are the faces of America. Serving all of us.” Thus, continued the union, “Isn’t it time to end the constant attacks on the people who serve us? Who knows what the twisted mind of a terrorist might think? Or do.” Ah, if only The Freeman hadn’t been criticizing failed government programs for decades, the Oklahoma City bombing might never have occurred.

Aside from the fact that this argument is both nonsensical and self-serving, it is also, well, dangerous. What is more likely to create a climate of hate–denouncing illegal and unconstitutional practices by the State that are harmful and sometimes deadly, or covering up such practices and denouncing the people who point them out? It is, in a sense, the new McCarthyism—criticize government, and you are accused of being an accessory to terrorism.

Indeed, this kind of finger-pointing will make it harder to address the real causes of terrorism. Criticism of government does not occur in a vacuum. More than half of respondents in a new Gallup Poll say they fear for “the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens” at the hands of the federal government. And they do so for a reason.

This is where Washington is so very far out of touch. Most policymakers honestly don’t understand why anyone would criticize, let alone fear them. Their sentiment was captured by historian Alan Brinkley who, in an article in The American Prospect, asked: “How has it happened that among all the powerful institutions in modern society, government has become the principal, often even the only, target of opprobrium among Americans angry and frustrated about their lack of control over their lives?”

How? Ask Randy Weaver, whose family was gunned down by FBI sharpshooters in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Ask the parents of the Branch Davidian children, who were burned alive in Waco, Texas, in the midst of a BATF assault. Ask Mary Williams, whose 75-year-old husband died of a heart attack during a mistaken SWAT team drug raid on their apartment in Boston. Ask Donald Carlson, who was shot three times in a faulty DEA raid on his home in Poway, California. Ask the thousands upon thousands of people who’ve had land seized by the Environmental Protection Agency, been audited by the IRS, and been otherwise harassed by the government.

Someone needs to explain to Professor Brinkley that only the government can seize property and kill people with relative impunity. Only the government can destroy businesses, level homes, impose taxes, and regulate property with minimal restraint. Only the government has a monopoly of force. Only the government warrants constant suspicion and fear.

The fact that the State has enormous power and has constantly misused that power requires us, especially in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City attack, to talk about the unsavory role of the U.S. government in promoting terrorism. Although nothing could ever justify Oklahoma City, it, along with other murderous assaults, like the World Trade Center bombing, should not surprise us. Unfortunately, the United States has spent years creating and inflaming a multitude of grievances here and abroad, grievances that some misguided people believe can be resolved only through violence and murder.

For instance, the Oklahoma City bombing may have been a bizarre retaliation for the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco two years before. Only a twisted mind could think that the killing of four-score people by the government warranted the slaughter of nearly 170 people in and around a government building. Nevertheless, no one should doubt that Waco, too, was terrorism, only committed by the federal government. Neither the absurdity of David Koresh and his beliefs nor the convoluted legal allegations against him justified the initial raid, let alone the final assault. Apparently only the government can risk children’s lives with impunity.

The World Trade Center bombing, too, was a predictable outgrowth of official U.S. policy. Persistent American intervention in the Middle East alone has been enough to turn the United States into an international target of terrorism. Though murderously misdirected and morally monstrous, the attacks are a natural response to Washington’s determination to make everyone else’s international conflicts its own by continually meddling in foreign squabbles and seemingly condoning most any injustice perpetuated by most any ally.

Consider the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon. The United States sent soldiers into the middle of a civil war, sided with one of the warring parties, and shelled Muslim villages as a show of strength. How, then, could anyone have been surprised when a suicide bomber reversed the direction of death, making 241 young Marines pay the supreme price? The United States intervened in a distant conflict for no cause and terrorized peoples with whom it had no quarrel, providing everything but an engraved invitation to revenge-minded killers. Unfortunately, American policymakers should share responsibility with foreign terrorists for the soldiers’ deaths.

Especially dangerous today is the government’s campaign to make an enemy of every living Muslim fundamentalist, wherever he resides in the world. There’s no doubt that Islam poses a serious challenge to Western culture and values. But the United States can do little to halt its spread and has no reason to intentionally antagonize Muslims who otherwise wouldn’t even think about America. Yet Washington is speaking of alliances with African nations that most policymakers, let alone citizens, can’t find on a map, in order to “contain” an ancient religion that has endured for centuries. Declaring a de facto war on Islam invites retaliation, and the most likely victims will be innocent Americans.

Yes, the United States must respond to terrorism. Part of the solution is improved detection, prevention, and punishment. But the United States must also reduce the manifold justifications, perverse and warped though they be, for terrorism that it has needlessly provided to those with seared consciences and murderous intentions. There are many good reasons why people both fear and criticize government. So long as Washington tolerates, encourages, and, worse, engages in one or another variant of terrorism, it will risk repetitions not only of Oklahoma City, but also of the plethora of other bloody attacks around the globe in recent years.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.