Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Liberal Responses to Terrorism

I have noticed a number of common threads and assumptions in most liberal arguments against the “war on terrorism”. Though I should have been sourcing these and identifying particular articles, posts, and opinion pieces, I had not before conceived of writing a definite response to them. But I believe many of you will easily recognize these arguments as being basic to a number of liberal arguments attacking Bush’s “war on terror”. I certainly found a number of examples of this in my regular perusing of the Daily Kos.

I am not really sure to what extent these various arguments reflect the opinions of most liberals or progressives. So, let me be clear that I make no claims that these positions represent those that are typical. But they are present and often dominant—in George Galloway’s response to the Madrid bombings, in the writings of Noam Chomsky and Joan Didion, all over the Huffington Post, in the British Guardian, in the Nation magazine, and also in many postings on the Daily Kos. As I mentioned above, I believe these assumptions are often the result of the liberal impulse: to view all people as equals, to believe in the essential good-ness of human beings, to view all actions as the result of environmental pressures and thus often morally exculpable (following from the previous), to see morality as a series of subtle distinctions rather than merely good and evil, and to view an uneasy peace as preferable to war. These are all rather commendable beliefs, and I share them. But they must be balanced with a hard look at the reality of terrorism and Islamic fanaticism. We are reminded that though liberalism has been an inspiration for great positive changes in the world, as well as a source of personal inspiration, it is not complete.

Some other beliefs seem to be more of a result of partisanship than any particular understanding of liberalism.


Seven Theses and Responses
So, here they are, seven responses to various “liberal” arguments against the war on terrorism:

1. Thesis: The “war on terror” is merely a cover for a power grab by Bush and his cronies.

Alternate thesis: Terrorism is a minor problem that we should just ignore; without attention, the problem will go away.

Response: The fight against terrorism is both necessary and just.

Though I do not doubt the Bush administration has used the War on Terror to pursue other strategic goals for America and themselves, and that numerous other people have used it to enrich themselves and their corporations—no reasonable person can deny that terrorism is not a major problem.

First of all, there is the terrible specter of a biological or nuclear attack. This would be a disaster of epic proportions. And the mere possibility of this should be enough to justify the allocation of serious resources and attention to preventing it. Though it is entirely possible this type of disaster may not be able to be prevented, there is no excuse for not trying.

Secondly, terrorism attacks the very basis of any society—the trust that is implicit in leaving one’s fortified home. A society in which people are terrified of terrorism is one which cannot survive indefinitely. This is precisely the understanding that those who wish to ignore it accept. But ignoring an obvious problem will not make the fear of it go away—rather it will become a shadowy force, a secret nightmare passed along as gossip and conspiracy theory. No—free dialogue, an affirmation of the ideals of a civil society—this is the answer to terrorism, both morally and strategically.

Finally, there is the decidedly conservative idea that as terrorism is inevitable we should avoid wasting resources combating it. Though this argument has a certain basic appeal—let me ask this: what liberal would accept an argument concerning racism or poverty based on this principle? Every individual and every government has a moral duty to try to eliminate these evils, whether or not it is possible to actually do so. This is the heart of progressivism. Even when it is unimaginable, progress is possible; the problem is not inherent in the world, but rather in the imagination.


2. Thesis: Terrorism is a legitimate or at least understandable response of people who lack power lashing out against those who are too powerful to be challenged directly. Terrorism may be immoral, but sometimes it is understandable in response to great injustices when there is no alternate course of action.

Response: There are no moral excuses or justifications for these acts of terror.

Terrorism directly targets the defenseless. It violates every fundamental principle of ethics and morality. It does so explicitly and flagrantly. The main purpose of terrorism is to cause fear and destruction. In order to accept terrorism as acceptable or understandable, one must first deny the humanity of fellow human beings. It violates the fundamental principle of liberalism: that all people are created equal. Terrorism explicitly regards the people who are its victims as beneath human care. Islamic terrorism justifies its victims by claiming that they are heathens. They even classify many fellow Muslims as heathens—Shiites, Sufis, and in the most extreme cases, all non-Wahabbi Muslims are considered to be beneath humanity. There is no defense of terrorism. And certainly, there can be no defense based on liberal principles.

3. Thesis: Even if terrorism is morally repugnant, it can be prevented by acceding to the demands of those who use it—it is merely used as a political instrument to gain specific objectives.

Response: Islamic terrorism, as practiced today, is not a course of action taken by rational self-interested individuals.

This point is especially strong and is perhaps the most compelling argument put forth against Bush’s War on Terror. Its appeal is in the fact that it is partially true.

When one considers the many prominent historical examples of terrorism that we have: the Irish Republican Army, the Jewish groups in Palestine before the founding of Israel, and the many disparate groups that threw off European rule in the period between the two world wars. These groups had a specific political goal and were willing to kill innocent people for their goals. The insurgencies and some of the terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan can be in this fashion, though it does not in any way excuse the use of terrorism.

However, Islamic terrorism today—whether by Palestinians against Israel or by bombers in London—is an entirely different phenomenon. Suicide terrorism especially exemplifies this: these are acts of men and women who wish to define themselves by death and destruction. Their ostensible political goals are a mere fig leaf for their spiritual desperation and self-hatred. These acts of terrorism are an end to themselves.

Look at the everlasting changing of the rationale for these attacks—first, the presence of American troops in the Holy Lands; then when they move from their, for their presence in Afghanistan. When we were attacked on 9/11 it was not because we were free as Bush asserted—it was, at root, because radical extremists like Bin Laden believed that the liberalism and the West were slowly infiltrating their societies. If one reads Sayyid al Qutb and other founders of radical Islam who gave their inspiration to Bin Laden, one sees that these men’s hatred of the West is only eclipsed by their hatred of their fellow Muslims who have embraced the West.

Islamic terrorism is an attempt to reverse history through unjustifiable destruction; it is an attempt to make present in others the hate and impotence the individual terrorists themselves feel. The only possible political purpose that would explain these acts is an attempt to provoke a religious war with the West which would unite and rejuvenate the Muslim world. This is precisely what Bin Laden and other extremists have portrayed Iraq and Afghanistan as the beginning of—and if they have their way, it will be.

Rational self-interested individuals do not kill themselves and as many others as possible in the attempt to start a war that would most likely destroy their native lands. Giving in would only embolden the fanatics.

The “liberal” position holds that if we were able to convince them that America and the West had stopped those practices that they found to be unjust and hurting Muslims—supporting Israel, keeping troops in the region, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the totalitarian governments in the region, and a number of other smaller complaints—then we would deflate the causes of terrorism and it would gradually end. But this thesis includes one incredible assumption: that any reasonable person could hold that any of these above factors could drive someone to terrorism and even suicide terrorism.

4. Thesis: Religious conservatives in America are our domestic equivalent of extremist Islamic groups.

Response: Our domestic political opponents share far more values with us than do those who resort to terrorism or who fail to reject it.

This seems obvious when it is stated. Yet there have been dozens of posts about the American Taliban and how the religious right is America’s equivalent to Islamic fanatics. Comparisons like this can always be fun—it’s always good to label your opposition as Nazis, Communists, terrorists, whatever—simplifying a complex situation usually leads to a more reasonable response. But the fact is, we share more with out political enemies—a belief in individual rights, democracy, some form of economic freedom, free speech, the right to assemble, the separation of church and state, and the benefits of science—than we do with any Islamic extremist. There are disagreements, but they have always been a matter of degree. No one debates whether church and state should become one; but we disagree on where the line should be drawn. No one debates whether or not all people have specific rights; but we dispute what those rights are.

5. Thesis: The wars against and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have failed. The War on Terror has failed. In reality terrorism has increased as a result of these attacks.

Response: The attacks in London and other terrorist attacks prove nothing about the Bush and Blair administration’s strategy for fighting terrorism.

6. Thesis: George Bush’s Iraqi adventure is a result of his conservative politics; either he just wants oil and to solidify America’s strategic position in the Middle East or he is seeking to initiate a religious war with Islam.

Response: Bush’s rhetoric and justifications for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan rest on liberal grounds, even if his methods often clash with liberal sensibilities.

7. Thesis: Our troops are being killed. Our presence in Iraq is provoking the terrorists. We have already handed over official sovereignty. Our presence there is not right—occupations don’t work. We must leave now, or set a timetable to leave soon.

Response: We must stay in Iraq and Afghanistan until the situation is secure. Leaving these countries to civil war and extremism would be far more irresponsible than the invasions themselves were.

(I’ll post explaining my responses later, but I wanted to put it up before it became dated.)

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