Anti-terrorism, like its predecessors, can't easily be dismissed as immoral. Were we wrong to help Stalin defeat Hitler? Were we wrong to help the Afghans defeat the Soviets? Such compromises seem clearly worth making when one menace gets big enough to outweigh the others and when the others can be dealt with once the big one is dead.
The trouble with this kind of absolutism is that it's bounded only by itself. Everything hinges on the definition of a single enemy. Once you distort the scope or nature of that enemy, your campaign against it runs off the rails. Start calling liberals Communists, and anti-communism becomes a totalitarian monster. Start calling conservatives fascists, and anti-fascism becomes a pretext for purging them from universities.
Anti-terrorism faces the same problem. What counts as terrorism, and what doesn't? The question isn't just theoretical. It's on the table right now, as the United States weighs the price of adding two new wings to the coalition against Bin Laden.
The first wing consists of Iran and Syria, who sponsor terrorist organizations other than Bin Laden's. Iran borders Afghanistan and hates the Afghan regime. Yesterday, according to the New York Times, a senior Bush administration official "suggested that Iran could provide information and perhaps crack down on border traffic and any financing that helps Mr. bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda. The official added that the United States had not asked Iran to take any specific action like halting the flow of weapons and other support to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and material support to militant Palestinian groups like Hamas." Is that deal kosher? Are you willing to look the other way while Iran funds Hezbollah? Are you willing to narrow the definition of the enemy to terrorists who have directly attacked the United States?
The other wing consists of Russia and China. While Iran and Syria want to narrow the definition of terrorism, Russia and China want to broaden it. A few days ago, China's foreign ministry suggested that the campaign against terrorism should address "separatists" in Tibet and Taiwan. Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a "mutual understanding in the sphere of fighting international terrorism"—in other words, a free hand for Russia to crush rebels in Chechnya. What about the atrocities Russia has committed in that war? Never mind, says a senior member of Germany's ruling party: "Silence on Chechnya is the price for this new solidarity. And I don't think Germany will be the only country to pay it." Will the United States pay that price? Will you?
Terrorists are "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century," Bush argued in his speech to Congress. "By abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends, in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
Bush is half right. There is a grave, but there is no path. There is only anti-fascism and anti-communism, which themselves prevailed by abandoning, at crucial moments, every value except the enemy's defeat. With that singular focus comes a singular responsibility.
If anti-terrorists twist the definition of terrorism so that they can continue to use it while slaughtering civilians in the name of fighting it, they'll be the ones who have obliterated every value except the will to power. Like Joe McCarthy, they'll become the enemy they set out to defeat. They'll be the ones who end up in history's grave. Or worse, they won't.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.