Free Life 23, August 1995, Editorial: Not by Such Help, nor with These Defences, by Sean Gabb

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From Free Life, Issue 23, August 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112

Editorial: Not by Such Help, nor with These Defences

Much as I still hope otherwise, it seems increasingly that the Oklahoma bombing was the work of people connected - however loosely - with the libertarian movement. This being so, it may be useful for me to address the various known and suspected readers of this journal on the matter of political violence.

Put briefly, I am against it. Though I support violence for defence and punishment, I define these rather narrowly. I have written against this country's involvement in the two World Wars. I was a Cold War sceptic; and I was once a member of CND; and I was scandalised by those who supported the use of torture and murder in the more local wars against Communism. I would not commit a terrorist act. If I knew anyone who was planning to, I would report him to the Police.

But this is only my opinion. It will not be shared in full by more than one or two of my readers. It will not convince the one or two that entirely disagree. And so I will add that the bombing falls into a class of acts that are not merely wrong, but also unprofitable. Even assuming that the end justifies the means, it cannot be justified. It fails each of the tests by which we can judge the appropriateness of means. Consider:

First, to be justified, the means must reasonably tend, alone or combined with others, to produce the desired end. I cannot see how blowing up nearly 200 junior clerks and their children will advance the cause of life, liberty and property. On the one hand, these people are easily replaced, and are already duplicated all over the country. On the other, the sight of their bodies pulled out of the rubble has only restored faith in a bad government. New and repressive laws, that would otherwise have failed in Congress, are being rushed through to popular acclaim, the usual opposition muted where not silent.

It can be argued that one is not enough, but that a campaign of bombings might demoralise the administration of a state. I doubt this. Governments are more often strengthened by terrorism than weakened. Or it can be argued that such strengthening is good in the long term - that to "bring out the fascist" in a state will destroy its legitimacy. But I doubt this too. All that usually happens when terrorism brings on a dictatorship is that the terrorists, plus anyone else who gets in the way, are hunted down like animals - and with public consent, where not support. And in the few cases where the terrorists have won, they have not been notably libertarian.

But even if I were wrong on this point, the Oklahoma bombing would still fail the second test - that the means chosen to an end must be the most economical ones available. It may be that libertarianism cannot succeed by argument alone. The Libertarian Alliance strategy, of achieving intellectual hegemony by the year 2100, requires at least a partially open society. Yet if we take the Conservative record on civil liberties since 1979, and extrapolate to 2020, we find something like National Socialist Germany. In the United States, the very rule of law is being abolished - either by delays and perverse judgments when matters do come into court, or by asset forfeiture laws that bypass the courts.

Therefore, some form of resistance may be necessary to make time for the progress of ideas. But this does not justify violence as a first option. Bad laws can be circumvented, and even undermined, by peaceful means alone. Armed resistance is appropriate only where all peaceful means have been exhausted, or where it is plainly unreasonable to employ them first. And I will stress that what I have here in mind is something like the Waco siege, where the Branch Davidians shot back at people who they believed - rightly, it turned out - were trying to kill them. I am not thinking of the Oklahoma bombing, which was, on the most charitable interpretation, an expensive substitute for a manifesto.

There are intellectuals who are aroused by violence, who celebrate it even as they purport to condemn it. I am not such a person. Nor, so far as I can speak collectively, is the Libertarian Alliance made up of such people. We are not pacifists. But we will not pause from condemning the Oklahoma bombing, or from denouncing anyone in the wider libertarian movement bad or stupid enough to have thought it a good idea.

Sean Gabb