LAS VEGAS — Magician Penn Jillette, a vocal libertarian, admits his first reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks would not have been ideal had he been president.
“If I’d been in Bush or Cheney’s position, first thing I would do was pass out, vomit and shit myself because I’m not a strong person to have that position,” he told The Daily Caller in an extensive interview from the Rio Hotel and Casino about his libertarian worldview. (The first part of the interview can be read here.)
Jillette is the loud and imposing half of the illusionist act Penn & Teller. In recent years, he has used his fame to become one of the most prominent libertarians in the country.
Though strident in his opinions, Jillette is humble enough to admit he knows he must be wrong on certain issues; he just doesn’t know which ones. This intellectual modesty is especially apparent when he discusses foreign policy.
In conversation, non-interventionist foreign policy prescriptions like “let’s stop killing civilians in other countries” easily flow off his tongue.
But when he begins to think about what he would have done had been in a position of actual responsibility after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — after the vomiting, of course — he becomes more thoughtful and tries to choose his words carefully, even if his views aren’t exactly mainstream.
“I don’t think we knew enough to be able to take the action that we did,” he argued, after a long pause.
“When you look at the actual numbers, the number of people who died after 9/11 was greater than the number of people who died in 9/11, even if you are talking Americans. But you know, I don’t like to talk Americans. I want to talk everybody. More innocent people died after 9/11 because of 9/11 than died in 9/11. I don’t believe in vengeance. Really when all is said and done I probably don’t believe in punishment. People that caused 9/11, the one’s that really caused it, are dead.”
“I would have done as little as possible,” he continued. “Now if you asked Bush and Cheney that question, they would say they did as little as possible, so I understand the nonsense of that.”
Pressed with the argument that it isn’t necessarily the numbers of people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks — as high a death toll as that was — but the threat terrorists could use weapons of mass destruction to inflict casualties many multiples higher, Jillette conceded, “That’s absolutely the case.”
But, he said bluntly, “I’m afraid that I would’ve had to see more stuff happen.” By stuff, he seems to mean more attacks against Americans.
Jillette then stopped himself.
“You know, all of this I’m going to take back because I used to talk to Christopher Hitchens,” he said, pausing when it hit him that the liberal essayist who in his later years was among the staunchest advocates of using American power to defend liberalism abroad and fight Islamist terrorism is no longer with us.
“He was a good friend. And I was never fit to eat shit off his shoes intellectually. Wasn’t fit to eat shit off his shoes in terms of education. And he’d also been everywhere. He’d been to Afghanistan. And when I would say, ‘God, I hate those fucking places.’ He would go, ‘You gotta go if you want to understand it.'”
Jillette, a teetotaler who claims he once prevented the legendary drinker Hitchens from bringing booze into his Las Vegas home, said he used to debate with Hitchens about his foreign policy stance in the years after 9/11 even though he concedes he knows so much less than his late friend and was “probably wrong.”
“I would argue with Hitchens about Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jillette said.
“And I would argue my little peacenik position, and I would feel while I was arguing that I was probably wrong and he was probably right. And then I would do this thing — and we’ve all done it in arguments — we have this ‘just because he’s smarter and more knowledgeable than me doesn’t mean he’s right.’ We all do that.”
“And then you do this kind of circular thing, which is, ‘Just because I’m stupid, doesn’t mean I’m wrong,'” he continued. “That’s what I started feeling. But that argument is a little weak to me. So my real honest answer is that I don’t know, and the one thing I’m most sure of after 9/11 is that I shouldn’t be the one in charge.”
Nonetheless, Jillette says he sticks by his non-interventionist position, even as he understands that it comes at great risk.
“From my pampered, non-pressured position, I feel we should have done a lot less,” he concluded.
“We cannot stop all bad things from happening. Taking away freedoms, taking a chance of killing somebody who is not a threat to us, is a very, very big deal.”
“If we did much, much less, is there a chance thousands more Americans would die on American soil?” he asked. “I don’t think you can make the argument I want to make without the answer to that being yes.”