Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Weak on terrorism? No, strong on the Constitution

Six years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress rammed through the USA PATRIOT Act with little consideration of what that bill actually contained. Five years ago, Congress authorized a reckless and ill-advised war in Iraq. One year ago, Congress passed the deeply flawed Military Commissions Act. And late last week, a Democratic Congress passed legislation that dramatically expands the government's ability to conduct warrantless wiretapping, which could affect innocent Americans. It is clear that many congressional Democrats have not learned from those earlier mistakes, two of which happened when Democrats controlled the Senate. Once again, Congress has buckled to pressure and intimidation by the administration.
Sen. Russ Feingold, in The Huffington Post

The Senator is right, of course. Afraid of being labeled as soft on terrorism, Democrats have knuckled under, again. Their majority--a small one, let's recall--has proved no match for the tenacity (stubbornness, obstinacy, willful blindness) of the President and the fecklessness of Republicans who know that we are heading into a great disaster if, indeed, we are not already there.

What's going on here?

The problem is that those who oppose Mr. Bush's policy frame their stance as just that--opposition. That is, they are on the defensive, and they have been since the President put down "My Pet Goat" and took up the reins of warrior-in-chief. George W. Bush and his opponents both buy into the idea that the way to fight terrorists is with force. Once started down that road, it is almost impossible to stand up for little things like free speech, free thought and privacy.

It's time for those who oppose the way that this administration has managed its grandiosely-titled Global War on Terror have it mostly wrong. The way to fight terror--especially the bin Laden brand--is not so much with force as with ideas and logic.

Let's start with some home truths: bin Laden and his minions are lousy at being terrorists. The purpose of terrorism, as Stalin said, is to terrorize. (Old Joe had a taste for pithy sayings.) Have bin Laden and is people terrorized his great adversary, the United States? Were you terrorized by 9/11? If you were like almost all Americans, you might have been afraid for a few days afterward, but then you just got mad. This is not an aberration: al Qaeda's modus operandi is the spectacular attack, but such strikes require complex planning and, as a result, are spaced many months, even years apart even before the safe haven in Afghanistan was taken from them. Such occasional events garner much attention, but they do not affect the daily lives of the intended targets, and thus they do not terrorize. (When I use the name "al Qaeda" I refer to the original organization, headed by Osama bin Laden. As it happens, other organizations that have taken the name are probably more effective than the original.) Effective terrorism relies on multiple, random acts that leave the target population with the feeling that they are always under attack.

And let's face a hard fact: Terrible as 9/11 was, if it were repeated once a month--at least in terms of loss of life--America's strength would be little impaired. (I certainly do not mean to be as heartless as that may sound; as the Talmud says, to save one life is to save the world; the loss of every life is an unimaginable tragedy.) The strength of the United States is immense.

What has the Bush administration's response to al Qaeda been? Mainly, military. A number of observers have suggested that we should treat the terrorist threat as mainly a law-enforcement matter rather than a military one, but that has been rejected by the US government.

I say that we should not treat terrorism as mainly a security threat in either a military or a law-enforcement sense, although we surely need to take all reasonable steps to protect ourselves on those levels. What we have almost utterly failed to do, however, is to fight the terrorists with ideas, at least in any organized way. Indeed, our military exercises have frequently got in the way of setting America's ideals in the face of bin Laden and his ilk.

Bin Laden preaches a doctrine that promises poverty and death. In the end, that's a hard sell. We hear a great deal about Muslim fanaticism; we have seen mothers proclaiming how proud they are of their children who have martyred themselves for the cause of Islam, how they hope that their surviving children will choose the same path. Some of those mothers may believe that at the time, some of them may continue to believe it, but most of them will at some time (perhaps only when they are alone in the dark of the night) weep and wish for their children to survive into a comfortable and happy life.

The truth that we have failed to make clear is that there are many more things that unite human beings than divide them. All normal people want peace and sufficient food to stave off hunger, and love and the happiness of their families. All great religions and all successful non-religious, even anti-religious, philosophies deal with how to provide the essentials of a good life for their followers, and how to deal with the individual and the mass of the society in which he or she lives. These faiths and philosophies may have different paths to resolving these issues, but, again, they are more alike than different.

There have been faiths or strains of faiths that have preached a doctrine of death; they fail and they disappear.

So, in the end, the kind of Muslim fundamentalism that we face is not a serious threat to the existence of the United States or western society. (Western society includes Japan, China, India and other Asian states that have adopted Western norms; in general, these are the states that are part of the global world of trade and intellectual exchange.) This is not to say that that fundamentalism cannot cause great harm and many deaths, perhaps for decades to come, but in the end the outcome is fore-ordained.

How do we minimize the death and destruction that the deluded extremists can visit on us? Reasonable security is a part of the equation. But the most important part--and the part that we miss--is to explain our values, to let the rest of the world see why we believe what we do, and to make clear that we do not impose our mode of thinking on others. We believe that we have found certain truths--freedom, democracy and the free market principal among them--that aid societies in dealing with their problems, but we recognize that others may wish a different path. While we believe that they are mistaken, we shall not force them to divert from their chosen way, so long as they do not present an immediate threat to the health and safety of Americans.

And, we lead by example. We respect our own values. We do not trample them in the name of security. We do not give up our freedoms and imitate the totalitarian principles of those who declare themselves our enemies. We do not lower ourselves to their level, but give them the opportunity to raise themselves to ours.

So, we do not need to show the world that we are strong on terrorism. We show ourselves and the world that we are strong on the values that ground this nation, and that have allowed it to become the world's leading power: freedom (and not just for those who believe as we do), democracy and due process of law. Even under attack, we uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Which, of course, is just what our leaders are sworn to do.


Duayne (South Dakota) said...

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we are on the same side! You would tolerate the deaths of thousands of Americans, every month, just so we would be able to share the wisdom of liberals like yourself and Russ Feingold to them. It is that type of posture (Remember Jimmy Carter) that emboldens these thugs to attempt to bring their terrorist acts to this land. Pitiful!!! In choosing to attack America these murderers deserve nothing but preemptive attacks meant to kill them. When the majority of Muslims begin to stand up and disavow the methods used by these criminals, as quickly as America prosecutes its own soldiers that act outside their lawful duties, maybe then we can discuss sharing ideas and values. Until then the only thing I anticipate feeling in the war against the terrorists is the recoil of a rifle!

The Old New Englander said...

You misunderstand my meaning. My point is that terrorists cannot win unless we hand them victory--which we are doing so far through a misguided policy incompetently carried out.

As for sacrificing lives in defense of the Constitution, that was a lot of what the Civil War was all about.

Duayne (South Dakota) said...

What would be an acceptable casualty rate of American citizens on American soil for you? Overall or monthly, however you prefer.

Duayne (South Dakota) said...

One more comment ;>)

Who said:
"Bin Ladin and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: to them America is the font of all evil, the ‘head of the snake,' and it must be converted or destroyed.
"It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground-not even respect for life-on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated."

Hint - It was someone or something that liberals like to quote frequently!

The Old New Englander said...

This is not a legitimate question and I'm not going to get into it. How many American lives would you spend in Iraq? How many Iraqi and/or Afghan lives to get bin Laden?

Am I willing to risk American lives in defense of the Constitution? Yes. Are you willing to risk American lives in defense of the nation? I presume that the answer is yes. Is there a difference between defending the Constitution and defending the nation? How many lives is the one worth vs. the other? These questions are unanswerable.

The Old New Englander said...

I am going to assume that it was Bill Clinton whom you quote.

But you and I do not disagree that bin Laden and his disciples must be "destroyed or utterly isolated." We seem to disagree over how. I do not believe we can destroy the ideas that underlie al Qaeda. I believe that we can help to influence the Muslim world to so reject them that they are no longer a serious threat. I do not believe that invading Iraq was the way to do that, and I think it's clear by now that the invasion has had the opposite result. Nor do I believe that the war in Afghanistan has been well-fought, with the result that the Taliban are resurgent and the production of opium is skyrocketing. There is, at best, incompetence in carrying out the policy that the administration professes.

Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper said...

Hat's off to you for standing your ground in the face of the challenge from SD to your position as stated in this post; brain cells vs. hormone cells, if you get my meaning.

Ironically, both kinds of cells are legitimate by virture of their contribution to the survival,to this point in time, of our homo sapien, sapien species.

The argument or question here, it seems to me, is what genetics and memetics are most likely to be to the advantage of our species now and in the future. The hormone charged approach seems to me to be about who will survive and who will become extinct by lack of a defense against a destructive physical force in its environment.

I acknowledge that such talk is way out there, likely more than the so-called forty thousand foot metaphor which the futurists like to claim as their perch.

I tend to look at reality through a different kind of prism.

Analytical by nature, I view existence through the lens of Evolution. How did we survice to get here and what will be the traits of our species which will help us get there, the future; or
will make us vulnerable to extinction.

Of course, extinction implies not only the disappearance of a species, but the ascendency of another species,in accordence with the rule that Nature abhors a vacuum.

As I commented to you recently I hate that there is a need for retaliation,though I understand it's necessity in extraordinary circumstances, like 9/11.

Retaliation rarely ends a conflict, but extends it by the fact that it was used by the enemy, and therefore puts it in play, by virtue of the school yard excuse that someone else started it.

It's an instinctive response which our species inherited by means of both genetics and memetics. The very fact that we are products of nature means that we are likely to respond to threats with the skills and instincts which were instrumental in our survival as a species today. As such we, as you astutely told me, we shouldn't be too hard on ourselvelve.

We retaliated, for the horror of 9/11, against the Taliban, who at that time, clearly ruled in Afghanistan. We drove the Taliban out.

They have come back thanks to our feckless, if not traitorous "ally" Pakistan.

I don't find it as hard to believe as he does that you guys are on the same side. His support of preemptive attacks smacks of Cheney/Bu$h, not even close to the views you expressed on your blog.

Lighthouse Keeper