Monday, 3 March 2003

Divided by the magnitude of tragedy

Something's been bothering me for a while, but it took two posts in Steven Den Beste's blog (U.S.S. Clueless) and Bill Whittle's latest (“Confidence”) to crystalize it all.

The first post of Steven's was his response to a correspondent named Dev. Dev wrote:

England, Ireland, France, Russia, Spain, Italy, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, the Lebanon, most of Africa, much of Asia, Australia, and many other countries in the world have suffered at the hands of fundamentalist terrorism for most of the last century. It is quite hideous to see the response of America to one attack. To be quite honest it frightens the hell out of me. I have lived in England for 2/3 of my life and in that time have experienced terrorism first hand on three occasions. I am only 29. I realise that I am lucky compared to those in countries where it is a way of life. Yet I do not think that the whole barrel of apples should be thrown overboard for the sake of a few rotten apples.

Steven's second post was his commentary on D-Squared Digest's attack on him for having the gall to feel victimized by 9/11. Notably, both correspondents are British.

As Dev says, Britain has suffered its fair share of terrorism, most notably in Northern Ireland (but also notably in the Lockerbie tragedy, the work of Libyan agents), as have other European countries. But comparatively speaking, most European terror has been either political or communal in nature; the participants in the Irish “Troubles” (both the IRA and its offshoots, and the Unionist paramilitaries of the pro-British community) targeted political and communal targets about equally, while the Basque ETA and most of the Communist-inspired domestic insurgents in other countries largely went after political targets. The closest parallels to the terror visited on the U.S. in September 2001 is to the Palestinian attacks on Israeli noncombatants or the IRA's targeting of members of the royal family and civilians on the British mainland in the 1970s — a strategy that ultimately was abandoned.

Yet the British example is instructive. Between July 1969 and December 2001, just over 3500 people were killed as a result of the conflict over Northern Ireland, according to Malcolm Sutton (also see this table that breaks the deaths down by year and status). Much is made of the relative size of the death toll in Northern Ireland, but the fact remains that about as many people died in three hours on 11 September 2001 as died in three decades of conflict over the Emerald Isle.

The political result of terror in Britain is also instructive. The ongoing Troubles led to Britain's passage of anti-civil libertarian laws, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its successors (including the Terrorism Act 2000), that make the PATRIOT Act look positively enlightened by comparison. London is blanketed by surveillance cameras; some estimate that the city has over 150,000 of them. Britons no longer bat an eye at truly Orwellian imagery in the streets. All largely in response to — or justified by — terrorism.

D-Squared and Des don't understand America's response because the only responses they've ever seen to terror are restriction of liberty at home (the British response) or sheer capitulation (the Franco-German response; ask your favorite Frenchman about Algeria some time). They didn't understand why America retaliated against the Berlin nightclub bombing in 1986, or why the Israelis retaliate against bombings by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, because their societies are cowed by terror — to use the banal phrase, beaten to death post 9/11 here, in Europe the “terrorists have won.” Every governmental response, from getting rid of the trash cans at train stations to blanketing the streets with surveillance cameras to having jackbooted paramilitary police with submachine guns on patrol at airports, was as much a victory for the terrorists as the Achille Lauro, Enniskillen, Lockerbie, or Munich.

What Europeans don't understand about America is that we refuse to accept that solution. America's attitude may be best summed up in an unlikely source, James Madison's Federalist 10:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

To paraphrase Madison, like faction, terror too is nourished by liberty. Give up enough of our liberty and perhaps terror can be extinguished. But how much is “enough”? Terrorism persists in some of the most illiberal societies in the world, such as China. More to the point, without our liberty, what is the point of preventing terror? If we can't live our lives in freedom, what value is there to life itself?

The left calls on America to recognize the so-called “root causes” of terror. Perhaps there are root causes, but if so they are hardly the shiboleths of the left; Kahlid Shaikh Mohammed doesn't care if the United States ratifies Kyoto or the International Criminal Court treaty, and neither topic has ever come up in the ravings of Osama bin Laden. Rather, the root causes are a diseased credo dressed up as religion that incites its followers to murder innocents and the failure of contemporary Arab states to provide their populations with any real hope for the future. If we are to defeat terror, we shall have to address both of these “root causes,” and the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a truly functional Arab state in the Middle East will have far more effect on them than either the diplomatic flummery of the Franco-German axis or cowering behind yet another layer of surveillance and neo-Securitate.