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October 2001 -- As the congress debates a new security bill and America faces a terrible and insidious threat, there is no more critical time to recall the purposes for which our government exists. A government is not a social club, it is not a charity organization, it is not a proxy for society or culture. A government forges a legal order and defends a territory, and the means it employs is force: force that coerces and compels citizens and strangers, force that defines its nature and function.
The power of government is a terrible power: the power of the gun. But the terrorist attacks of September 11 have reminded us why we really need it.
The power of government can be turned to oppression, for good motives or bad. The Taliban of Afghanistan have a government, after all. In the West, we have seen what can happen when government is misappropriated, as it was in Germany before World War II, or as it was in Yugoslavia quite recently.
America was founded on the principle of a limited government. But even here, we have seen deviations from principle and have experienced oppression from time to time. "Governments are instituted among men," states the Declaration of Independence, "to secure these rights [:]... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But even here, every emergency brings forth calls to monitor, restrain, restrict, and control the people. In World War II thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were arrested for no crime, and held without justification, for years. To fight the war on drugs, legislatures have created forfeiture laws which invert a basic principle of justice, holding the accused to be guilty until he proves his innocence. And the current war on terrorism is providing the rationale for a host of new restrictions and controls.
The purpose of the American government is not to control its people -- it is to set its people free. The rights enshrined in the Declaration are not a hodge-podge of random claims, they are an essentially unified conception of what freedom is. As Ayn Rand noted, to have a right to life is to have the right to act freely in support of one's life and in pursuit of happiness. Individual liberty: to write, speak, and profess belief, to peacefully associate and organize, to own property and make contracts - this is what America exists to enshrine and protect. This is the freedom for all to live and live well. This is the basis of our way of life. It is this freedom, both the military that defends it and the commercial audacity that expresses it, that the terrorists seek to destroy.
Since the attacks, national polls have shown extremely high levels of public approval of our government and support for the President. Some commentators have interpreted this as a decrease in cynicism about government. More correctly, what it represents is Americans' bedrock understanding of what government is for: securing our liberty. We are united in defense of our diverse and dynamic civilization, and we strongly support our government as it acts in our defense.
But to justify our trust, our government must consistently act in accordance with its purpose. Does it attempt to disarm everyone on every airplane, so that any hijacker can run amok and so that business travel grinds to a crawl? Or does it encourage the improvement of cabin defenses, self-defense by airline staff, and provide sky marshals to see off any threat that should get aboard? Does it create whole classes of vague charges under which individuals can be detained and search warrants waived, undermining the basis of our system of justice, or does it do the hard work of gathering credible evidence and develop intelligence networks to provide that evidence?
As the Administration proposes and Congress debates new laws to improve the safety of our skies, our cities, and our factories, let us encourage the principled, creative, and energetic defense of our liberty. But let us also take diligent care that liberty remains our sovereign principle, and our way of life secure.
This article was originally published in the October 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.