Thursday, December 8, 2011

An alternative to war

By Bob Confer

Last week I was the guest on Don Griffin’s “Second Opinion” on KJSL in St. Louis. The topic of discussion was a 2009 column I wrote about a part of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal. These are contracts that allow American citizens abroad to defend themselves from a defined threat, or grant them permission to retaliate against – and even take the possession or life of – the same. My column had addressed granting Letters to seafarers so they could protect their craft and personnel from the modern day pirates off the Horn of Africa.

Don had me on his show to further expand on that concept; he wisely wondered if maybe this little-known and little-used rule could be applied to ground efforts as well, as a sort of alternative to war. It certainly can and our nation would be better off if we had used it. But we didn’t.

In October of 2001, just a few weeks after we were attacked on our soil, Congressman Ron Paul penned two bills that would have authorized the government to issue Letters to US citizens, giving them permission to hunt down and capture or kill the terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks and/or were planning others. Nearly all of his peers at the Capitol looked at the bills with udder disdain and the legislation went nowhere.

10 years after the fact, there are probably scores of Congressmen who quietly admit they wish they had sided with the doctor. That’s because the War on Terror has proven to be an impractical war. Our enemy isn’t a nation. It isn’t an organized army. It is, instead, a splintered collection of extremists located throughout the world, operating in small cells located in places ranging from the obscure to the populous. It has been extremely difficult to properly to track and battle such forces using standard military tactics (strong in numbers and equipment), yet our armed forces have had numerous victories, both large and small. All of them, though, have come with a huge cost in life and dollar. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 American military personnel. Those same wars have consumed more than $1.19 trillion.

The War on Terror is actually something more fit for the recipients of Letters of Marque and Reprisal. Legal mercenaries, small in numbers, but highly-trained and effective, would have been able to operate under the radar and at their own discretion. As a result, the lives lost would not have numbered in the thousands. Rather, it would only have been in the dozens.

The monetary cost would be relatively miniscule as well. When Letters were granted in volume (by the US prior to and during the War of 1812 and by the Confederacy in the War Between the States), they featured bounties or rewards for the captured or killed. The same would have been applied to the likes of bin Laden and his fellow dregs of humanity. Instead of spending trillions (with a “t”) on the destruction of terror sects, the government would only have needed to invest millions (with an “m”) on financial motivators for those seeking the glory of fulfilled retaliation. Letters of Marque and Reprisal are unique in that regard, relying on the free markets to achieve what war typically would.

Most people have never heard of the Letters, or realized that they could be applied to privatization of threat neutralization. Others know of them but don’t care for their utilization, either considering them a Constitutional antiquity or something far too risky. Those of the latter mindset often think of Blackwater. That private company, favored by the Bush Administration, committed many atrocities in Iraq, including the murder of innocents. But, Blackwater was not commissioned by the Letters and was unconstitutionally used by the Executive Branch as an instrument of war. Actual Letters come with a collection of rules and restrictions, a means of control to ensure the contractors operate in the best interests of our nation.

It’s never too late to use Letters. A good application still exists for them in Iraq. Although the war may be identified as finished, thousands of our troops will remain there to aid and protect Americans conducting nation-building activities, ranging from construction to social work. Why should they have to? Letters would extend the privilege of protection to private Americans and their companies, granting them the power to retaliate and defend against terror attacks.

That privilege should be recognized now and it should have been in October of 2001.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 12 December 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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