Fighting Terrorism With Democracy

Fighting Terrorism With Democracy

We must strengthen institutions that protect us from a national security state.


A year after 9/11, the United States is still not facing up to the hardest questions that that disaster posed. Nobody has yet explained how the government might hope to take effective precautions against, for example, the arrival of nuclear or biochemical devices in shipboard freight containers. One suspects that the officials of our government are well aware that no precautions are likely to eliminate, or even substantially lessen, the chances of further terrorist attacks. But these officials are not about to tell the public that their government can think of little more to do than to tighten security at airports.

Still, governments must pretend to their citizens that they are doing something to provide the protection that the taxpayers think their taxes should buy. The use of military force in Afghanistan gratified the public’s need to have the government take action in response to 9/11, but it was not enough, nor was setting up a new bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security. So for the past eleven months we have had a steady series of cryptic utterances from President Bush and his Cabinet officers, and of calculated leaks to the press, suggesting that an invasion of Iraq is in the works. Yet the Bush Administration has never even tried to argue that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will do much to lessen the probability of terrorist strikes.

On some days Washington tells us that we need to go after Iraq for reasons that were present before 9/11, and are quite independent of that event. On others we are told that the plan to depose Saddam Hussein is part of “the war on terrorism” that began on 9/11. This rapid alternation produces a blur. That blur helps conceal the fact that neither of the two arguments for attacking Iraq has been laid out in terms that would justify the sort of resolution (the equivalent of a War Powers Act with no clear temporal or geographical restrictions) that a spineless Congress was, as of this writing, about to pass.

Even if 9/11 had not happened, it might still be the case that the danger of letting Iraq continue to build weapons is greater than the danger of the chaos throughout the Middle East that will be produced by an all-out attempt to bring about regime change. But the Bush Administration is not interested in making this case. The last thing it wants is genuine public debate about what needs to be done. For such debate would endanger the conviction that it wishes to encourage–that we are already at war, and that the President must therefore be entrusted with the same sort of powers, and the same freedom from accountability, that Roosevelt was given in World War II. In particular, the President must have the right to keep anything he wishes secret–even his reasons for choosing one time or place for making war rather than another.

It is in the interest of the Republican Party both to have a blanket war-powers resolution passed, and to make sure that the country thinks of itself as “at war” for as long as possible. Those who control that party–an amazingly greedy and cynical oligarchy, with no interest whatever in either the rights of the citizen or the welfare of the poor–would like nothing better than to re-create, and continue indefinitely, the state of mind that led to Roosevelt’s re-election to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944. That election was swayed by the slogan “Never Change Horses in Midstream.” It is in their interest to bring about the permanent militarization of the state described in Orwell’s 1984, and suggested by the title of Gore Vidal’s latest book: Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.

One might think that the opposition party would expose the strategy of self-perpetuation being used by the party in power. But Democratic politicians are terrified. They see President Bush’s post-9/11 approval ratings as a sign that refusal to endorse the planned war on Iraq would show them to be insufficiently tough on terrorism. Democratic politicians can hardly tell the public the truth: that they are as baffled as the Republicans about how to insure that no other American cities will be attacked. Faced with a threat that nobody has any idea how to deal with, both parties are unable to speak frankly to the voters. No American politician can admit that our military prowess can do little to lessen the danger that our cities will be subject to unpredictable and unpreventable attacks by small nongovernmental organizations like Al Qaeda.

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.

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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