Anti-Terrorism

How you look at things.
Sept. 27 2001 3:00 AM

Anti-Terrorism

In the war on terrorism, what are we fighting for?

President Bush says we're fighting for democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties. Terrorists "hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government," he declared in his speech to Congress last week. "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan." Bush concluded, "This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It sounds good, but it doesn't add up. A coalition of governments that believe in all these principles can't include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan. According to the U.S. State Department's latest Human Rights Report, all three countries restrict freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. Jordan is a monarchy propped up by security forces that have committed "extrajudicial killings." The Saudi royal family "prohibits the establishment of political parties" and enforces "a rigorously conservative form of Islam" through "religious police." Egyptians "do not have a meaningful ability to change their Government." Egyptian security forces "arbitrarily arrest" and "torture" people in the name of "combating terrorism."

Are you passionate enough about freedom and democracy to exclude these countries from an anti-terrorism coalition? Are you willing to give up Saudi cooperation in the detection and destruction of Osama Bin Laden's financial network? Are you willing to give up Egyptian intelligence, which informed us of Bin Laden's plot to kill Bush in Europe two months ago? Are you willing to sever ties with Jordanian security forces, who thwarted Bin Laden's plans to massacre tourists in the Middle East two years ago?

No? Would you rather have the help of those countries against Bin Laden than push freedom and democracy on them? Then let's take a harder case. According to the State Department, Pakistan harbors and supports Muslim extremists associated with hijackings and suicide bombings against India. A few years ago, we slapped sanctions on Pakistan for testing nuclear weapons. In 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized control of the country in a coup. But now that we need Pakistan's help to stage operations in neighboring Afghanistan, we're lifting the sanctions and offering substantial economic aid. Is that OK with you? Are you willing to tolerate military dictatorship, nuclear proliferation, and a faraway proxy terror campaign in order to get Pakistan's assistance against Bin Laden?

Does it bother you that 62 percent of Pakistanis, according to a Gallup Poll, oppose their dictator's decision to support the United States in this conflict—or that only 9 percent of people surveyed by Gallup in 27 Muslim nations favor airstrikes against Afghanistan? Does it bother you that the Pakistani and Saudi regimes are keeping their collaboration with us as secret as possible in order to avoid angering their citizens? We're not just ignoring democracy as a goal. We're deliberately circumventing it. Is that OK with you?

Maybe we can justify these compromises, and maybe we can't. But we can't even have that debate until we stop deceiving ourselves about what we're doing. We're not building an alliance for democracy, pluralism, or freedom of speech and religion. We're setting aside those principles in order to build the broadest possible alliance against terrorism.

We've been here before. Pearl Harbor drove us into an alliance with the murderous Josef Stalin against Hitler. The Iron Curtain drove us into an alliance against communism. To contain and defeat the Soviet Union, we compromised human rights, pluralism, and democracy wherever we thought it necessary. We propped up right-wing dictators. We tolerated torture. We armed Pakistan. We armed Afghanistan. We armed Bin Laden.

Then communism collapsed, and all the principles we had suppressed while fighting it rose to the surface. We sanctioned Pakistan. We denounced Afghanistan's religious intolerance. We started talking about human rights and the treatment of women.

Then came Sept. 11. A new global menace commanded our attention. Suddenly, democracy in Pakistan and women's rights in Saudi Arabia seem expendable. The concentrated fear that drove us to anti-fascism and anti-communism is driving us to anti-terrorism.

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.

 

 

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