The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

One of the unfortunate side effects of 9/11 has been the sad decline of intelligent libertarian commentary. A few months after the war I let my subscription to Liberty lapse. The magazine had become unreadable not because of its opinions but because of the poor quality of its arguments.

Here is an example by the worst of the writers to appear in Liberty's pages after September 11, one George W.C. McCarter. In the October 2002 issue McCarter wrote "The Case of Johnny Jihad," an examimation of the John Walker Lindh affair. Now it would not be difficult to critique the indictment of Lindh on libertarian grounds. Lindh does not belong to the United States. He is not its chattel. If Lindh wishes to go to Afghanistan and fight for Allah, that is his business. The laws of the United States do not and should not extend to Central Asia; what Lindh does there is none of the American government's business. Of course if Lindh should come into conflict with American armed forces, it would certainly be reasonable for them to shoot at him or make him a POW. But Lindh should be treated as any other combatant, not as a slave who ran off his owner's farm.

That was my off the cuff attempt to defend Lindh from a libertarian perspective; it was not at all what McCarter wrote. McCarter attempted to minimize the case against Lindh with enough hand-waving to give ten hardened software engineers carpal. For instance:

The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto described those offenses as "aiding terrorists and carrying explosives." Taranto's disingenuous precis is just accurate enough to be grossly unfair. A more complete account was provided by John Riley in Newsda: "Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying a rifle and grenades while supplying services." That sounds more like Ernest Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War than it does "aiding terrorists."

This is not a philosophical argument; it is the most vulgar sort of obfuscation as might be practiced by Johnny Cochrane. Was Hemingway not a combatant? Is there any point in using him as an analogy (rather than, say, a Danish civilian who volunteered for the SS) other than to cloud Lindh's actions in a halo of romantic literary respectability? McCarter continues on and on in this vein for three pages, conceding the legitimacy of the government's case against Lindh and trying to undermine it by quibbling about pointless details.

I have also been disappointed by much of the writing found in Reason, especially the Hit and Run blog. Hit and Run at least is readable and contains some good stuff, but it also contains a great deal of pointless sniping. For example, take this entry from last week:

A key piece of evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program appears to have been fabricated, the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector said yesterday in a report that called into question U.S. and British claims about Iraq's secret nuclear ambitions.

Documents that purportedly showed Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa two years ago were deemed "not authentic" after careful scrutiny by U.N. and independent experts, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the U.N. Security Council....

Knowledgeable sources familiar with the forgery investigation described the faked evidence as a series of letters between Iraqi agents and officials in the central African nation of Niger. The documents had been given to the U.N. inspectors by Britain and reviewed extensively by U.S. intelligence. The forgers had made relatively crude errors that eventually gave them away -- including names and titles that did not match up with the individuals who held office at the time the letters were purportedly written, the officials said.

Wow, imagine that: Intelligence is often inaccurate! I thought you could just Google for "Saddam" "uranium" and get all the information you needed. There is of course a great deal of other evidence that Saddam is pursuing various forbidden weapons. Furthermore, if you treat the Baghdad regime with the same hostility and suspicion that you do Washington's, you would assume that Saddam were developing weapons of mass destruction until proven otherwise.

Reason's schtick for promoting libertarianism is not to prosletyze, but to present little bits of evidence that the market works ad that the state does not. This may be a good scheme in general, but not now. There are momentous issues to be decided at this moment -- whether it is appropriate to preemptively strike other nations, what should be done to dictators who have violated ceasefire terms for a decade, how Al Qaeda can best be defeated. None of these issues will be decided by pointing out that a particular piece of evidence is false, or that Vice President Cheney has connections to Halliburton.



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