Democracy, Antidote to Terrorism?

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of the war in Iraq have claimed that one of the principal purposes
of the war was to reconstitute that country as a democracy. This
claim gained currency after it became apparent that no weapons of
mass destruction were going to be found in Iraq. Transforming Mideast
nations into democracies was, it was avowed, a necessary component
in the War on Terror, thus rendering the war in Iraq necessary even
in the absence of WMD. The bombings of United Nations offices, Iraqi
police stations, and other civilian targets in Iraq were, we were
told, desperate attempts by the terrorists to prevent the transformation
of Iraq into a secular, constitutional democracy, with respect for
women's and minority rights, because they perceived that such transformation
would spell their end.

implicit claim that transforming Mideast nations into democracies
will eliminate, or at least vastly reduce, their willingness to
harbor terrorists or sponsor terrorism has, to my knowledge, not
yet been seriously questioned. Certainly based on popular war rhetoric,
there is reason to disbelieve it. If, indeed, "they hate us,"
why wouldn't their countries, once reconstituted as representative
democracies, continue polices that expressed the consensus of hatred
harbored by their peoples? True, the newly constituted democracies
could not act openly in supporting terrorists or exporting terrorism,
any more than any dictatorship or oligarchy that wished to survive
would. But are democracies incapable of covert action? How would
transformation into representative democracies eliminate grievances
the people of those countries have against the United States, or
at least eliminate covert sponsorship of terror as a means of dealing
with those grievances?

the claim ought not to be investigated on the basis of its literal
meaning at all, considering the possibility that it's real value
lies in the manner in which it is likely to be heard, namely, as
a statement that we must make them be more like us. Nevertheless,
while the principal justification for the war in Iraq these days
seems to be that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein,1
in his speech at the Republican National Convention President Bush
again claimed the necessity and saving grace of transforming Mideast
countries into democracies:

we acted to defend our country, the murderous regimes of Saddam
Hussein and the Taliban are history, more than 50 million people
have been liberated, and democracy is coming to the broader Middle
East. . . . Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful
societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence
for export. Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists
instead of harboring them. So our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq
is clear: We will help new leaders to train their armies, and
move toward elections, and get on the path of stability and democracy
as quickly as possible."

transforming Mideast countries into democracies is to be considered
part of the War on Terror, the claim that democracy is an antidote
to terrorism should be analyzed and addressed. While we wait for
the day that our media, newly rededicated to unearthing the truth
following acknowledgements of their failure to challenge the administration’s
claims about WMD, finally press the Bush administration for an explanation
of how and why democracy extinguishes terrorism, we can consult
what others who have given some thought to the matter have said.
This is not the first time in history that terrorism loomed large
as a major threat to the nation state. The 19th century
anarchists, many of whom had links to international labor movements
and communism (transcendent ideologies rather than states), were
considered grave threats by the European monarchies and democracies
of the day, and occasioned considerable fear, especially in the
halls of government and the cities that were their favorite targets.

1894, in an essay titled, "The
Ethics of Dynamite
," the English political theorist and
"voluntaryist," Auberon Herbert, traced the moral and
material genesis of the dynamiter to the existence of popular, democratic
government itself, and its foundation on majority rule. If Herbert's
analysis is correct, terrorism cannot be eliminated or controlled
by converting monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies and dictatorships
into democracies. Herbert proposed a quite different approach to
the problem, warning that if we did not learn the lesson of the
real origin of the dynamiter but responded by meeting force with
force, we would all face "a bitter and evil time of which no
man could read the end."

is not opposed to government

began by arguing against two viewpoints common then as now: first,
that the dynamiter is opposed to government; and second, that this
phenomenon has little or nothing to do with the actions of government
itself, but springs instead from some other soil (then, labor movements
or communism, now militant Islam). Far from being opposed to government,
Herbert argued, dynamite, i.e., the use of murder and terror to
achieve political goals, was in fact simply a new development in
the art of government:

many worthy people are apt to look on dynamite as the archenemy
of government, but . . . remembering that undeniably the great
purpose of government is the compulsion of A by B and C to do
what he does not want to do, it is plain that such a view fails
to distinguish essence from accident, and to appreciate the most
characteristic qualities that inhere in this new political agent.
Dynamite is not opposed to government; it is, on the contrary,
government in its most intensified and concentrated form. . .
. It is government in a nutshell, government stripped, as some
of us aver, of all its dearly beloved fictions, ballot boxes,
political parties, House of Commons oratory and all the rest of
it. How, indeed, is it possible to govern more effectively, or
in more abbreviated form, than to say: "Do this – or
don't do this – unless you desire that pound of dynamite
should be placed tomorrow evening on your ground floor study."
It is the perfection, the ne plus ultra, of government."

he argued that the dynamiter was in fact an entirely predictable
consequence of the actions of modern governments, of treating the
lives and property of individuals as "administration material."
The dynamiter was governments' "very own child, both the product
of and reaction against the methods of u2018governing' men and women,
which they have employed with so unsparing a hand."

could you build up these lawless, irresponsible, all-grasping
governments, and not expect to see some dark shadows, some grotesque
imitations, some terrible caricatures, begotten of them? How could
you deify force in one form before the eyes of all men, and not
expect sooner or later to see other deifications set up at its
side? . . . In truth, the new deity is not in the least unaccountable.
He is only too easy to account for. Both his moral and his physical
genesis lie at the door of the European governments. To almost
all of them, we may in turn say: u2018Tu l'as voulu, Georges Dandin'2
In their different degrees they are, nearly all of them, alike;
for long years they have plowed and sown and harrowed the soil;
and lo! the crop is here. If any government thought that it could
indefinitely go on turning men and women into administration material,
fastening its grip closer and closer on their property, their
lives, and their beliefs, until the chief purpose of human existence
became – half-unconsciously, perhaps – in the eyes of
these governmentalists, to supply a state revenue out of blood
and sweat, while, fed and nourished by this state revenue, the
grandeur of the governments was ever growing and growing, with
officials magnified into creatures of a semidivine order, and
a splendid and highly exciting game carried on by means of all
this annexed property, and all these annexed lives, against other
governments, equally engaged in playing the same splendid and
exciting game – if they thought that this life of the gods
ruling at their ease in the empyrean would flow on forever in
a happy and unbroken stream, that nations, made of living men
and women, might be turned wholesale into low forms of government
property, without some strange phenomena, without some startling
products and reactions breaking through the calm of the surface,
we can only say of them, that, true as ever to the bureaucratic
tradition, they were not in contact with the realities of flesh
and blood – that they were, in an old phrase of Mr. Gladstone,
u2018living up in a balloon.' Two things were sure to arise, and they
have arisen. In the moral world some men would begin to look at
these gigantic structures of power, to ask questions about them,
to finger them, and to probe deep to see on what moral foundations
they rested; while in the world of daily life some men, less patient
than their fellows, would be maddened by the close, painful grinding
of the wheels of the great machines left wholly to the control
of officials, and would become the right stuff for the wildest
counsels to work in."

these two worlds, the "moral world" and the "world
of daily life," Herbert then turns to examine the moral and
physical genesis of the dynamiter.

moral genesis of the dynamiter

argues that "one of the devil's seeds" was sown by the
observations and critical inquiries made by various philosophers
and other "potentialities," stretching from Herbert Spencer
back to Milton, into the underpinnings of popular government. "A
time came when the well-known phrases, u2018the power of the people,'
u2018the will of the people,' u2018the will of the majority,' which had
so often been spoken orc rotundo, with a real sort of thunder
of their own, when directed against things still more unreal than
themselves, began to ring a little hollow, and to provoke critical
inquiry into what was the true substance underlying these mighty
oratorical expressions." As summarized by Herbert, the upshot
of these examinations was that the claimed right of a majority to
govern does not rest on any moral foundation, but on power:

what sort of philosophical doctrine is this – that numbers
confer unlimited rights, that they take from some persons all
rights over themselves, and vest these rights in others? . . .
Here are two men. If there are such things as rights, these two
men must evidently start with equal rights. How shall you, then,
by multiplying one of the two, even a thousand times over, give
him larger rights that the other, since each new unit that appears
only brings with him his own rights; or how, by multiplying one
of the units up to the point of exhausting the powers of the said
multiplication table, shall you take from the other the rights
with which he started? . . . Is it possible to suppose, without
absurdity, that a man should have no rights over his own body
and mind, and yet have a 1/10000000th share in unlimited
rights over all other bodies and minds? If he does not begin by
possessing rights over himself, by what wonderful flying leap
can he arrive at rights over others? yet, if he once possess these
rights over himself, how can he ever be deprived of them, and
become the statutable property of others? and again, where can
a crowd of individuals get rights from, unless it be from the
individuals themselves, who make up the crowd? and yet, if the
individuals possess these rights over themselves, as individuals,
what place is left for rights belonging to the crowd, as a crowd?
You may appoint a committee, a government, or whatever you like
to call it, and delegate to it powers already possessed by the
individuals, but by no possibility can this delegated body be
seized with larger powers than those possessed by the individuals
who called it into existence; by no possibility can the creature
possess greater authority than those who created it. It is easy
to understand that an individual can delegate full powers –
powers of life and death – over himself; but how can he delegate
powers, which he himself does not possess, over another individual?
You may give your own rights away, but you cannot possibly give
away, however generous your mood, the rights of your fellow-man.
If, however, you persist in attributing such powers to the delegated
body, please say exactly whence – from what human or superhuman
source – it has drawn them, since it is plain that it has
not drawn them from the individuals. Nor is it possible to escape
from the difficulty by denying human rights, and declaring that
rights are only imaginary things, for, in that case, government
itself has no rights. By such sweeping and reckless denial of
rights you make of government the very outlaw of outlaws. All
that it has done or is doing would then be absolutely void of
moral foundations. All its regulations, its takings its compulsions,
would then simply rest upon what is convenient in the opinions
of some persons, and what could be enforced by their superior
strength; and, therefore, of course, it would be liable, as the
mere product of convenience, to be removed in any way, or by any
weapon, that is convenient and superior to itself in strength."

government rests simply on power, upon "what is convenient
in the opinions of some persons, and what could be enforced by their
superior strength," not on right. The fact that a group constitutes
a majority confers no right upon it to govern, or as Herbert puts
it time and again, three men have no greater right to rule two men
than two men have to rule three. This realization, however, that
there is no real moral foundation to it, that government is simply
the stronger party enforcing its will, will be taken by some as
a license for all out war, who will vie in the contest of strength
using any means at their disposal:

the moment that this truth – that no moral foundations for
unlimited and undefined power could by any intellectual ingenuity
be discovered anywhere – that if the world rested upon the
elephant, and the elephant upon the tortoise, still the tortoise
rested only in space – the moment that this truth was grasped
in all its significance by the quick perceptions of the nineteenth
century, the moment that all rhetorical sophistries were swept
aside, and it was seen that, morally speaking, three men had no
better right to govern two men than two men to govern three, then
at once it became open to any revolutionary section of the minority,
who considered that war was to be met by war, and were not impeded
by any moral scruples as regards the use of means, to equalize
or reverse the conditions of power by finding some new agent which
had "governing force" in it. This new agent was supplied
by dynamite, and from that day it has become war – war between
those who govern openly by majorities and those who govern secretly
by dynamite."

interlude wherein I quibble with something Herbert has said

critique is framed in terms of a query whether any moral basis exists
to support a claim that the "will of the people" or "the
will of the majority" commands or possesses "unlimited
rights" or "unlimited and undefined power" over others.
This leaves open, at least theoretically, the possibility that such
form of government might act legitimately as long as confined within
a circumscribed, defined sphere of human action that respected individual
rights, such as a right of free speech or a right to freely exercise
one's religion. Why Herbert framed his inquiry this way is unclear.
While this suggestion of a loophole might flatter his English and
American readers, Herbert's questions and line of reasoning apply
with equal force to a claim of right to govern any activity of others;
his questions and analysis lose no force when the words "unlimited"
or "undefined" are deleted. Herbert's critique belies
a claim of right to rule others even within some defined, limited
sphere of action.

same may be said of the Bill of Rights. On what basis are the rights
listed there beyond majority control while other activities are
not? What theory of right supports the conclusion that those specific
activities are untouchable, while others are subject to control
by the majority? It would appear difficult, if not impossible, to
develop a theory explaining why the specific activities identified
there were in some uniquely specifiable way sacrosanct or special
forms of human behavior, particularly deserving of respect, while
all others were freely subject to majority control. In fact, it
is far easier to proceed in the opposite direction. In the chapter,
Right to Ignore the State
," in Social Statics (1851),
Herbert Spencer demonstrates that the same arguments that have been
employed to justify the right of individuals to freely exercise
their religion imply a right to disregard the state in all other
activities, as long as the individual does not infringe on the equal
liberty of another, and that the distinction between religious liberty
and civil liberty is arbitrary, all action being a matter of conscience.

rights listed in the Bill of Rights are there because they reflect
historic clashes of people with the government, cases where the
people (or more accurately, some notable segment of them) simply
would no longer tolerate the government's attempts to control or
regulate them. The right to trial by jury and other essential features
of due process established by Magna Carta were forced
upon the King
essentially at sword point. Freedom of speech
was established due in large part to juries that time and again
refused to enforce libel and other actions against the press. The
enumerated "rights" are cases where government has made
a virtue of necessity, withdrawing from the field only to continuously
press against the boundaries and commence the long, slow process
of winning back the power that was lost. They are clearly not the
product of some general moral theory that divides human conduct
into that which others have a right to control and punish, and that
which others have a duty to leave alone, and so are not based upon
a theory of limited government so much as historic practice and
accommodation. It would therefore be a mistake to conclude that,
if Herbert intended to leave a loophole for a defined area of human
conduct that was legitimately subject to control by majority vote,
the U.S. Constitution or the English Parliament and Bill of Rights
is that system.

material genesis of the dynamiter

finds the material genesis of the dynamiter in "the working
of the great official machines" – their arrogance, cruelty,
pedantry, their incapacity, their oppressive and vexatious rules
and their "maddening influence," by which he means, literally,
their capacity to drive people mad.

every European government is a legalized manufactory of dynamiters.
Vexation piled upon vexation, restriction upon restriction, burden
upon burden, the dynamiter is slowly hammered out everywhere on
the official anvil. The more patient submit, but the stronger
and more rebellious characters are maddened, and any weapon is
considered right, as the weapon of the weaker against the stronger.

draws most of his examples from France, but notes that a similar
"black list" might be drawn up against Germany, Austria,
Italy, Spain, Russia or Turkey. He cites examples of mismanagement
and the backwardness of state hospitals in Europe. He argues that
few things evidence the "official cynicism and arrogance with
which the law is administered in the Paris law courts" than
the fact that there is hardly a civil lawsuit there which does not
last at least a year. Matters are worse, though, in the police courts,
where it is not unheard of to dispose of up to 200 hundred criminal
cases at a single sitting summarily without listening to any defense
– a rate of about one case every minute. "This lightening
like or electric dispatch of business is secured by putting the
delinquents into batches, according to the nature of their offense."

kind of official arrogance and cruelty is not limited to criminal
matters but, Herbert states, can be found in almost everything government

the ludicrous prohibition about sea water. An unfortunate seaside
resident may not go and dip his bucket into great Father Ocean
and carry off water for his bath, as such liberty might interfere
with the revenue derived from salt. I would commend this fact
to any innocent-minded land nationalizer as a trifling but significant
example of the spirit in which governments deal with so-called
national property. So, too, if I am rightly informed, no ordinary
person is allowed to fish in the sea within the three-mile limit
– that ordinary right of the citizen being turned into a
bit of state property and reserved for special classes of persons."

in his beloved England, where the people have not yet been wholly
"officialized" and turned into "government material,"
he has seen

clever and industrious workman driven to the edge of revolt by
the persecuting character of our education laws, and changed from
a man ready to fight within the law to one who was almost ready
to fight outside it. There are men, not bad parents, who have
passed from town to town to avoid this persecution. These are
families who have broken up their homes and lived as they could,
in their detestation of it.3 It
is time that we laid aside this odious weapon of compulsion. More
and more bitter will be the fruit of it as the years go on. Compulsion
everywhere is a brutalizing weapon."

is to be done?

claim was that the domestic or internal policies and practices of
European states were creating homegrown terrorists. If anything,
his analysis has greater force in the arena of international
politics. Not subject to any overarching world government, the nations
of the world are in the proverbial Hobbesian "state of nature"
with regard to one another, that is, they are in a state of perpetual
war. When one nation, such as the United States, acts against the
people of another state or some segment of them, the action patently
is not taken by those who are their elected representatives or their
own government. There is no semblance or pretense of legitimacy
or right; it is power pure and simple, and it invites a response
in kind.

key insight is that, because government rests on power, all claims
to govern are simply contests of strength. Since government rests
not on right but on power, government by its very nature invites
contests of strength.4 Even the phrases,
"will of the majority," or "majority rule" indicate
that the essence of the thing is simply a contest of wills, a battle
over who will have their way in the empire of desire. Such formulation
of "government" positively invites the challenge posed
by terrorists: "Very well, then, let's test your will and
see how strong it is. Let us see who's will is stronger."
Contra Hobbes, therefore, government is not, and does not
provide, peace, but is simply the continuation of the war of all
against all by other means.

then have a choice. We can vie within existing government in accordance
with the accepted rules to acquire and hold the reins of power to
impose our will, winning and benefiting as we can, or losing and
suffering as we must; seeing that there is no right to govern and
it is but war, we can fight by any means necessary to overturn it
and substitute our own government and will, which will be neither
more nor less "legitimate" than the government we replace
(but will provide us with the ability to impose our will instead
of being imposed upon); we can reject the use of force as a means
of dealing with one another.

the query, what is more appropriate, that the majority rule the
minority, or the minority rule the majority, Herbert answers: neither.
"Self-ruling, not each-other-ruling [is] the goal in front
of the world." He concludes his essay with an impassioned plea
for men to turn away from the use of "the odious force weapons
with which we have warred against each other."

we cannot by reason, by influence, by example, by strenuous effort,
and by personal sacrifice, mend the bad places of civilization,
we certainly cannot do it by force. Force is the very weakest
and most treacherous of all human implements. The history of force
is the history of the continuous crumbling away of every institution
that has rested upon it. The irony of history has never faltered
for a single generation. It is no mere paradox to say that to
be strong with the world’s strength is to be weak. Whatever on
the one day looked to the eyes of men as if it could defy all
attack, towering above subject things in its magnificence, and
resting on what seemed its immovable and almost eternal foundations
of force, on the morrow has gone to pieces as if it had been wholly
built of rubble and clay. . . . The only thing that lasts through
it all, that endures while the other perishes, is moral force
– the word, the conviction, which attempts to bind no hands
but acts only on the soul. As Emerson said – I don’t remember
his exact phrase – there is only one victory worth winning,
the victory of principle, the victory over souls. To that belief
we have to return, if we have ever held it; or to ascend to it,
if it has never yet been counted amongst our intellectual possessions;
and blessed, thrice blessed, will be the dynamiter, with all his
cruelty and with all his insanity, if in his distorted features
we learn to see as in a mirror a reflection of our own selves,
and thus are compelled to recognize the true character of the
odious force weapons with which we have warred against each other.
If we cannot learn, if the only effect upon us of the presence
of the dynamiter in our midst is to make us multiply punishments,
invent restrictions, increase the number of our official spies,
forbid public meetings, interfere with the press, put up gratings
– as in one country they propose to do – in our House
of Commons, scrutinize visitors under official microscopes, request
them, as at Vienna, and I think now at Paris also, to be good
enough to leave their greatcoats in the vestibules – if we
are, in a word, to trust to machinery, to harden our hearts, and
simply to meet force with force, always irritating, always clumsy,
and in the end fruitless, then I venture to prophesy that there
lies before us a bitter and an evil time. We may be quite sure
that force users will be force begetters. The passions of men
will rise higher and higher; and the authorized and unauthorized
governments – the government of the majority and of written
laws, the government of the minority and of dynamite – will
enter upon their desperate struggle, of which no living man can
read the end. In one way and only one way can the dynamiter be
permanently disarmed – by abandoning in almost all directions
our force machinery, and accustoming the people to believe in
the blessed weapons of reason, persuasion, and voluntary service.
We have morally made the dynamiter; we must now morally unmake


  1. A nonprovable
    and nonrefutable claim, since to prove or refute it would require
    one to know what otherwise would have been, and require us to
    be able to trace the consequences both of Saddam’s removal and
    his continued residency in power over some nonarbitrary length
    of time, at the end of which the results could be tallied and
    the issue settled, a task clearly beyond the limits of human knowledge
    and understanding. The assertion is, therefore, an article of
    pure faith, which means that, politically speaking, it is perfect
    as a justification for the war.
  2. Literally,
    “You wanted it,” but more colloquially translated, “You asked
    for it,” or “You brought this on yourself.” The quote is a reference
    to Moliere’s comedy, Georges
    Dandin, Ou Le Mari Confondu
  3. Compulsory
    national education was introduced in England in the mid-1800’s.
    Not all English parents were enthused about the forced separation
    from their children and the usurpation of their right to educate
    as they saw fit. Herbert opposed it. In State
    Education: A Help or Hindrance?
    (1850), he made a scathing
    critique describing the debilitating effects of government “benefits”
    and the resulting learned helplessness, brilliantly encapsulating
    why government programs, ever proclaimed with promises of an upward
    moral ascent, always result in a downward moral spiral. Herbert’s
    works are available electronically here.
  4. What is
    an election but a form of ritual combat? The sports-team style
    media coverage – what are the numbers, who is winning, who
    is losing, who scored a telling blow, who is on offense, who is
    on defense – far from being a failure of meaningful reporting,
    actually reflect the real nature of the event.

16, 2004

Snyder [send
him mail
is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of
of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control
, which examines
the American character as revealed by the gun control debate. His
website is here.

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