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Fighting Terrorism With Democracy | The Nation

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Fighting Terrorism With Democracy

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Any Democratic senator or congressperson who expresses doubts about a new war against Iraq can count on being described by members of the Bush Administration as an effete Europhile, unworthy to hold office in a country that must stand united against evil. Europhiles like myself are of course delighted that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and other European statesmen continue to express such doubts. We share the concern felt by Europeans over the amazing arrogance that our government has displayed since President Bush took office. We are horrified by our government's repudiation of the last vestiges of Wilsonian internationalism--manifest in our government's insistence that American soldiers never be under a foreigner's command, and that American war criminals never be tried by an international court. But we cannot help feeling that Europeans have no better idea than we do about what is to be done, and that many European intellectuals are confining themselves to criticism of the United States without having much to say about the long-term defense of civilization against terrorism.

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Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty, a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University, is the author of numerous...

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Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear.

Europe has, of course, had much more experience with terrorism than we have. But the Red Brigades and similar organizations are now pretty far back in the past. Europe has yet to experience mega-terrorism of the 9/11 sort. It probably will before long. For it is the West as a whole, and not just the United States, that is hated. So someday Berlin, Paris and Madrid will probably experience the shock that New York experienced last year. The people who blew up the World Trade Center may well find it equally gratifying to blow up, or spread disease germs around, the Prado, the Eiffel Tower, Potsdamer Platz or the Palace of Westminster. The difference between an intolerably arrogant and appallingly rich infidel nation and various smaller, better-mannered, slightly less rich infidel nations may not seem very significant to those who wish to imitate bin Laden's success.

If mega-terror does come to Europe, it is likely that any right-wing European political party that happens to be in power at the time of an attack will imitate the strategy adopted by the Bush Administration. It will try to replace a democratic republic with a national security state--one in which the intelligence agencies and the military take the place of elected legislators in deciding national priorities. It will institute measures that will eventually lead to an Orwellian condition of perpetual war. Any left-wing parties that happen to be in power when catastrophe strikes may be tempted to do the same thing. For neither the right nor the left in Europe seems to have thought much about the question that politicians in all the rich democracies ought to be thinking about: How can democratic institutions be strengthened so as to survive in a time when governments can no longer guarantee what President Bush calls homeland security?

That problem is genuinely new. Civilization is now threatened not just by rogue states like Hitler's Germany or Milosevic's Serbia but by people who are not exactly enemy combatants and not exactly criminals. Enemy combatants are agents of, and based in, nation-states. Criminals typically live in the countries in which they operate and can be watched, infiltrated and eventually arrested by the police of those countries. Our new enemies are people who operate far from our borders and who can, perhaps without the knowledge of the government of the country in which they happen to be at the moment, prepare a nuclear device or a biological weapon. They can then place it inside a container that will, on the other side of the world, be loaded off a ship directly onto a railroad car. All they have to do after that is arrange for someone to press a button when the train arrives at the relevant city.

We call this new sort of person a terrorist for lack of any better term, but we do not really have any pigeonholes in which he fits, nor any sense of what institutions and practices will be required to cope with him. Neither armies nor police will do. It turns out that it only takes a few tens of millions of dollars, and a few people prepared to commit suicide, to create an organization able to bring despair to the heart of the West. Such an organization does not need to control a national government or even be allied with one. The catastrophes that rich monomaniacs like bin Laden are now able to cause are more like earthquakes than like attempts by nations at territorial aggrandizement or attempts by criminals to get rich. We are as baffled about how to forestall the next act of mega-terrorism as about how to forestall the next hurricane.

If we cannot forestall such attacks, we may nonetheless be able to survive them. We may have the strength to keep our democratic institutions intact even after realizing that our cities may never again be invulnerable. We may be able to keep the moral gains--the increases in political freedom and in social justice--made by the West in the past two centuries even if 9/11 is repeated year after year. But we shall only do so if the voters of the democracies stop their governments from putting their countries on a permanent war footing--from creating a situation in which neither the judges nor the newspapers can restrain organizations like the FBI from doing whatever they please, and in which the military absorbs most of the nation's resources.

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