Don’t expect the war skeptics to be credited with predictive power, but the fact remains: the war on terror isn’t working. The crisis in the Middle East escalates by the day, with all sides experiencing more terror and death, and the ranks of terrorists and potential terrorists grow larger by the day. The US has never had more enemies in the world than it does today. The world isn’t safer since the war on terror began, but rather more vulnerable to violence.
The pro-war pundits aren’t backing off but becoming ever more extreme in their demands that only more bloodshed will remedy the problem, even though this approach hasn’t worked so far. They continue to harbor the illusion that terrorism is a product of conspiracy brought about by hateful and well-funded Svengalis who exercise mysterious mental power over would-be suicide bombers, without whom all would be right with the world. The goal, then, is to wipe out the terror leadership and intimidate potential followers with impressive displays of political hegemony.
This theory, which is as anti-intellectual as any argument made for the Total State, serves only those who have a limitless faith in the power of coercion. It is essentially no different from Stalin’s theory about why socialism wasn’t working in the 1930s: the problem was the Kulaks who had to be eliminated before the path was clear for the victory of the State. It parallels Hitler’s view of why he wasn’t winning the hearts and minds of Europe: the problem was the Jews standing in the way of Aryan autocratic rule. When confronted with resistance, despots do not rethink but escalate.
It’s tragic but not fatal when this attitude strikes a small State in Latin America or an aberrant State in Europe. It is ominous when it overtakes an entire region. But when it happens to the world’s only superpower, the damage to the long-term cause of liberty is immense. Few have considered what message this war on terror is sending to all States in the world. It has encouraged political leadership to do what they would like to do anyway: silence all dissidents and violently suppress all political opposition.
At some point in the course of George W. Bush’s speechifying on the topic of terror, he let loose with this one: "So long as anybody’s terrorizing established governments, there needs to be a war." As James Bovard points out, it was soon after that the Cuban government added a new law that allows for the death penalty for anyone using the internet to incite political violence. In a report to the UN, Cuba cited this law as evidence that it is cracking down on terror. Similarly egregious laws have been passed in Zimbabwe and Syria.
The progress of civilization is inseparable from the long struggle to establish a right to dissent. Along with that comes the need to strictly limit the power of the State to punish political opposition. That is the upshot of every important political advance in the last 500 years, from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights. The 20th century demonstrates nothing if not the productive power of human liberty and the horror of State control. Generations of high school students have been taught about the courage of the dissidents and martyrs in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
We are told that September 11 changed everything. Apparently so. The war on terror has put the full faith and credit of the US government behind a theory of power that stands the lessons of history on their head. Instead of supporting the right to dissent, the US now backs any government willing to crush and destroy it. Instead of sympathizing with refuseniks and the oppressed, along with captive nations and peoples, the US stands ready to back the suppression of every human right in the name of stopping terror.
For those who care about the world of ideas, the ideological meltdown has been the most stunning of all. The postwar American conservative movement was weaned on the ideas of men like Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and F.A. Hayek. From them we take the broad lesson that civilization is the product not of power but of faith, community, and liberty. We must not be swayed by the latest crusade, but rather embrace the wisdom of tradition, they said. Prudence, not fanaticism, must the basis of political order, they believed.
Take a look at the writings at National Review Online, or the Wall Street Journal, or the Statements by the Republican Party. The concern for restraining fanaticism and power is not only missing. It is positively trampled on and denounced as the attitude of appeasers of terror. Anyone who would invoke the writings of Weaver, Kirk, and Hayek now are dismissed as, in the eloquent phrase of Opinion Journal’s James Taranto, a "wacko."
Have pity on the kids in college who take their politics from the new conservative leadership in the reign of Bush. To them, conservatism will be synonymous with the uncritical celebration of war, power, and violence. Forget about reading Edmund Burke or Eric Voegelin. To flex your conservative muscle, call for more government consolidation and shout down anyone who has doubts about US global hegemony. Power, control, coercion: these are the new watchwords of American conservatism 2002.
And yet, it will not work. Every action by the US produces some counteraction. Those with critical minds understand that September 11 was not the beginning of something new but a demonic retaliation for something old that began after the Cold War when the US military, looking for a new crusade, went to war to settle a border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. The troops went to Mecca, the embargo was placed on Iraq, and one war followed another until a group of suicidal killers decided to exact vengeance on American civilians, which the US government interpreted as a license to repudiate every principle of good government.
War fever and the lust for bloodshed — the core impulses of barbarian peoples — are having a good run of it these days. Pray for the return of civility and peace.