Democracy, Antidote to Terrorism?

Supporters 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.

The 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?

Perhaps 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:

"Because 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."

If 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.

In 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."

Terrorism is not opposed to government

Herbert 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:

"Now, 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."

Next, 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."

"How 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."

To 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.

The moral genesis of the dynamiter

Herbert 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:

"And 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."

Popular 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:

"But 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."

An interlude wherein I quibble with something Herbert has said

Herbert's 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.

The 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, "The 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.

The 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.

The material genesis of the dynamiter

Herbert 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.

"Almost 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. "

Herbert 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."

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

"Take 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."

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

"a 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."

What is to be done?

Herbert's 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.

Herbert's 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.

We 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.

To 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."

"If 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 him."


  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 (1669).
  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.

September 16, 2004