It is difficult sometimes to remember the days before September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush was a decidedly ordinary President whose anemic victory the previous fall had required a month’s worth of recounts and court decisions to confirm.  After the terrorist attacks, President Bush’s approval rating soared, and his administration sought and received vast new powers with which to confront the terrorist threat.  While September 11 was portrayed as the start of a new era, it was, in fact, only the latest episode in the United States’ entanglement with the Islamic world, going back at least to the Iranian hostage crisis during the Carter administration.  James Bovard, a libertarian journalist, has now weighed in on President Bush’s response to the attacks with Terrorism & Tyranny.  Bovard is independent of the dominant teams in American politics.  His last book, Feeling Your Pain, was as critical of Bill Clinton as his current one is of George W. Bush.  The value of the new book lies in Bovard’s attention to detail.  Each chapter is devoted to a particular topic, and Bovard piles example upon example upon example, until he drives his point home.

While most of Terrorism & Tyranny deals with the Bush administration, it looks back briefly to the American response to terror starting in the early 1980’s.  One theme that emerges is the lack of accepted responsibility: When bad things happen, they are nobody’s fault.  Or, if someone does accept “responsibility,” he escapes the consequences thereof.  The terrorist attacks on U.S. military targets in Saudi Arabia exemplify this.  Though former secretary of defense William Perry took nominal responsibility for these attacks, “Perry did not resign, forfeit his pay, or ceremonially commit hari-kari: he simply claimed responsibility and assumed that everyone could go their merry way.”

The first “War on Terror” occurred during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  The high point was the U.S. air attack on Libya in 1986, after which President Reagan’s credibility was shattered by revelations that his administration was illegally selling weapons to the regime in Iran in order to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon and to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.  Muammar el Qaddafi may have responded to the bombing of Libya by blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, only a few days after the outgoing President bragged about how effective his administration had been in curtailing Libyan terrorism.  Bovard argues that, “though Reagan spent his entire time in office warring against terrorism, far more American civilians died in terrorist attacks at the end of his reign than at the beginning.”

Now, George W. Bush has gone to war against terror on a far larger scale than Reagan ever imagined.  His administration sought and received new powers in spite of the federal government’s failure (documented by Bovard in detail) to make effective use of the powers that it already had.

Federal agencies such as the FAA and the FBI ignored warnings of the possibility of terrorists using airplanes as missiles and even, in some cases, warnings of the threat posed by some of the September 11 hijackers themselves.  One thing that should have been obvious on September 12 was the unlikelihood of that particular strategy working again.  As Bovard speculates, 

the vigorous crew and passenger response to [attempted shoe bomber Richard] Reid was an indication of what might have happened on all the hijacked flights on 9/11 if airlines and citizens had not been kept blindfolded from warnings the feds were receiving—and if people had not been encouraged to acquiesce to aggression and trust government to rescue them.

The commonsense response to September 11 would have been to arm pilots, give slightly greater scrutiny to young Arab men—those traveling in groups especially—and trust passengers and flight crews to go on the offensive in the future.

Yet common sense did not carry the day.  The Bush administration fought arming pilots, and, even after it was authorized by Congress to do so, the Transportation Security Administration placed bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of implementing the policy.  As things stand, the only way in which the current airport-security regime might make air travel safer is if it causes potential terrorists to succumb to fits of laughter that prevent them from committing mass murder.  (Bovard catalogs a multitude of airport panics induced by the stray pocketknife, dozing screeners, and similar incidents.)

The foolishness and incompetence of airport screeners has been compounded by those of the airlines.  Neil Godfrey made the mistake of attempting to fly out of Philadelphia with a copy of Hayduke Lives! (the late Edward Abbey’s sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang).  After suspicious screeners examined the book for almost an hour and questioned his plans, they let him pass, only to have United Airlines refuse to allow him to board.  Undaunted, Godfrey booked another flight and returned with a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Once again, airport screeners spent several minutes examining the book before allowing Godfrey to pass.  Once again, United personnel (muggles, no doubt) refused to let him board.  (Readers attempting to pass through airport security with an issue of Chronicles in their possession are forewarned.)

Terrorism & Tyranny also assesses the effects of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allows for—among other things—searches of library records without notifying the holder of the library card.  Admittedly, much of the rhetoric related to the act has been overheated.  Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), the only senator to vote against the act, has stated that Americans have become “afraid to read books, terrified into silence.”  That, of course, is nonsense.  Defenders of this provision point out that the government has been able to obtain such records in the past and that the FBI must get a court order for such a search.  Still, there are legitimate reasons for concern.  Bovard points out that the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts that oversee such searches have lower standards of probable cause and that they have turned down none of the 12,000 wiretap requests made by the FBI since 1978.  Also,

the Patriot Act FISA changes were one of the clearest examples of federal incompetence and misconduct being rewarded with greater power.  In September 2000, the Justice Department notified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court . . . that the FBI had made at least 75 false representations to the court about wiretaps.

Toward the end of Terrorism & Tyranny, Bovard suggests a few ways to avoid the former without implementing the latter.  Most importantly, the “U.S. government must cease attempting to micro-manage the Middle East.”  Though one might have supposed this conclusion to have been obvious after September 11, a primary justification for the invasion of Iraq was that it would “drain the swamp” of terrorism and make peace in the Middle East more likely.  The continued attacks on Americans and frequent suicide bombings in that country, together with the crumpling of the “Road Map to Peace,” serve only to strengthen Bovard’s argument.


[Terrorism & Tyranny, by James Bovard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 440 pp., $26.95]