Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004


Richard Rorty on anti-terrorism and the national security state

2493 words

Europe is coming to grips with the fact that al-Qaida’s opponent is the West, not just the United States. The interior ministers of the EU nations have been holding meetings to co-ordinate anti-terrorist measures. The outcome of these meetings is likely to determine how many of their civil liberties Europeans will have to sacrifice.

We can be grateful that the attack in Madrid involved only conventional explosives. Within a year or two, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons (crafted in Pakistan or North Korea) may be commercially available. Eager customers will include not only rich playboys like Osama bin Laden but also the leaders of various irredentist movements that have metamorphosed into well-financed criminal gangs. Once such weapons are used in Europe, whatever measures the interior ministers have previously agreed to propose will seem inadequate. They will hold another meeting, at which they will agree on more draconian measures.

If terrorists do get their hands on nuclear weapons, the most momentous result will not be the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It will be the fact that all the democracies will have to place themselves on a permanent war footing. The measures their governments will consider it necessary to impose are likely to bring about the end of many of the socio-political institutions that emerged in Europe and North America in the two centuries since the bourgeois revolutions. They may return the West to something like feudalism.

The actions of the Bush administration since 11 September have caused many Americans to think of the war on terrorism as potentially more dangerous than terrorism itself, even if it entailed nuclear explosions in many Western cities. If the direct effects of terrorism were all we had to worry about, their thinking goes, there would be no reason to fear that democratic institutions would not survive. After all, equivalent amounts of death and destruction caused by natural disasters would not threaten those institutions. If there were a sudden shift of tectonic plates that caused skyscrapers to collapse all around the Pacific Rim, hundreds of thousands of people would die within minutes. But the emergency powers claimed by governments would be temporary and local.

Yet if much less severe damage occurred as a result of terrorism, the officials charged with national security, those who bear the responsibility for preventing further attacks, will probably think it necessary to end the rule of law, as well as the responsiveness of governments to public opinion. Politicians and bureaucrats will strive to outdo one another in proposing outrageous measures. The rage felt when immense suffering is caused by human agency rather than by forces of nature will probably lead the public to accept these measures.

The result would not be a fascist putsch, but rather a cascade of governmental actions that would, in the course of a few years, bring about a fundamental change in the conditions of social life in the West. The courts would be brushed aside, and the judiciary would lose its independence. Regional military commanders would be given the kind of authority that once belonged to locally elected officials. The media would be coerced into leaving protests against government decisions unreported.

Fear of such developments is, of course, more common among Americans like me than among Europeans. For it is only in the US that the government has proclaimed a permanent state of war, and had that claim taken seriously by the citizens. Christopher Hitchens has jeeringly said that many American leftists are more afraid of John Ashcroft than they are of Osama bin Laden. I am exactly the sort of person Hitchens has in mind. Ever since the White House rammed the USA Patriot Act through Congress, I have spent more time worrying about what my government will do than about what the terrorists will do.

Questions about the constitutionality of the powers now being claimed by the executive branch have been endlessly debated in American law schools over the last two years. Some of these questions will come before the Supreme Court in April. Two hundred and fifty towns and cities in the US have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act. Some of these resolutions direct local police forces not to co-operate with the federal government in enforcing the act’s provisions. Those who framed and passed them see the act as a foretaste of much more extensive claims to emergency power that will be made once the terrorists mount a few more attacks within the United States on the scale of 11 September.

The Patriot Act was a very complex omnium gatherum, hundreds of pages long. Like its British analogue, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, it was rushed through in the wake of 11 September. Both pieces of legislation were probably drawn up simply by asking the security agencies to list the restrictions they found most inconvenient. It is unlikely that a majority of members of Congress or of Parliament who voted for them had a clear idea of what they contained. We shall soon learn whether the Madrid bombings trigger the same sort of reaction by all or most of the governments of the EU.

Though I regard John Ashcroft as a thoroughly sinister figure, I don’t think the Bush administration is filled with power-hungry crypto-fascists. Neither is the German or Spanish or British government. But I do think the end of the rule of law could come about almost inadvertently, in both the US and Europe, through the sheer momentum of the institutional changes that are likely to be made in the name of the war on terrorism. If there were a dozen successful terrorist attacks on European capitals, and if some of them used nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, the military and the national security bureaucracies in all the European countries would, almost inevitably, be granted powers that they had not previously wielded. The public will find this fitting and proper. Local police forces will probably start working on instructions from the national capital. Any criticism by the media will be seen by the government as a source of aid and comfort to terrorism. European ministers of justice will echo Ashcroft’s reply to critics of the Patriot Act. ‘To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,’ Ashcroft said, ‘my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.’

Such developments would gradually reduce the effectiveness of the various institutions that have made it possible for public opinion to influence the actions of democratic governments. At the end of this process of erosion, democracy would have been replaced by something quite different. This would probably be neither military dictatorship nor Orwellian totalitarianism, but rather a relatively benevolent despotism, imposed by what would gradually become a hereditary nomenklatura.

That sort of power structure survived the end of the Soviet Union and is now resolidifying under Putin and his fellow KGB alumni. The same structure seems to be taking shape in China and in South-East Asia. In countries run in this way, public opinion does not greatly matter. Elections may still be held, but opposition parties are not allowed to pose any serious threat to the powers that be. Careers are less open to talent, and more dependent on connections with powerful persons. Since the courts and the police review boards are relatively powerless, it is often necessary for shopkeepers to pay protection money to the police, or to criminals tolerated by the police, in order to stay in business. It is dangerous for citizens to complain about corruption or about abuse of power by public officials. High culture is restricted to areas that are irrelevant to politics (as it was in the Soviet Union, and still is in China). No more uncensored media. No more student demonstrations. Not much in the way of civil society. In short, a return to something like the Ancien Régime, with the national security establishment of each country playing the role of the court at Versailles.

Life for much of the world would not be greatly changed if the dismal scenario I have just outlined were to play out in the West. For in the poor countries most of society has always been, and still is, organised along feudal lines. In north-east Brazil, as in the villages of equatorial Africa and Central Asia, nobody would notice that the world had changed, that a light had gone out. But in the countries in which the greatest moral progress has been made, that progress would cease. After a few generations, utopian fantasies of an open society might be cherished only by a few readers of old books.

Perhaps this prognosis is much too pessimistic. Maybe I, and the many Americans who share my fears, have been so frightened by Ashcroft that we have started to see monsters in every dark corner. Maybe European parliaments will not panic in the way that the US Congress did. Maybe democracy is more robust in European countries than in the US.

Still, I cannot help thinking that democratic institutions, in my country at least, have become pretty fragile. I am half (though only half) persuaded by the claim Chalmers Johnson makes in The Sorrows of Empire that ‘the United States is probably lost to militarism.’* Johnson produces a lot of evidence to show that the ‘iron triangle’ (the defence contractors, the Pentagon, and the armed services committees of Congress) has already acquired so much power that the best an American president can do is to negotiate with the Pentagon, rather than to give it orders. The military and the security agencies are not yet as powerful in the EU countries as they have become in the US, but they may suddenly see the chance, and the need, to seize powers they had not previously claimed – powers that will allow them to become the de facto rulers of their countries. Any such efforts would be cheered on by the military-industrial complex in Washington.

So much for the fears that I, and many others, have acquired since 11 September, and which the Madrid bombings have reanimated. Is there anything the citizens of the Western democracies can do to make it less likely that their grandchildren will live under the sort of neo-feudalism I have described? The only thing I can think of that might make a difference is a willingness to challenge the culture of government secrecy. Demands for government openness should start in the areas of nuclear weaponry and of intelligence-gathering – the places where the post-World War Two obsession with secrecy began. As a first step, the citizenry could demand that their governments publish the facts about their stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Then they might insist that these governments make public the details of two sets of planned responses: one to the use of such weapons by other governments, and another for their use by criminal gangs such as al-Qaida.

They could also demand that their governments join in efforts to update the laws of war, and to create something like a code of international criminal justice. As many legal scholars have been pointing out since 11 September, the laws of war were designed to cover the acts of national governments. Criminal law was intended to deal with acts committed within a nation’s borders by its own citizens. There are plenty of grey areas where neither sort of law applies. In these areas, governments are now pretty much free to do as they please: to parachute hit squads into Third World countries in which terrorists are thought to be holding meetings, to bring about regime change in nations suspected of supporting terrorists, and so on. There is not much point in saying that such actions are against international law: they may prove to be the only way of preventing, for example, nerve gas in the London Underground, anthrax in the Bundestag and a ‘dirty’ nuclear device under the Seine next to Notre Dame. Updated laws, openly agreed on by international bodies and adopted, after debate, by national governments, would specify when such actions were legitimate. Such updating would provide a good occasion to draw up new multilateral agreements, and to think about using the United Nations for new purposes.

If Western governments were made to disclose and discuss what they plan to do in various sorts of emergency, it would at least be slightly harder for demagogic leaders to argue that the most recent attack justifies them in doing whatever they like. Crises are less likely to produce institutional change, and to have unpredictable results, if they have been foreseen and publicly discussed.

Open discussion of needed changes in international law should be accompanied by a new openness about many other topics. There is no good reason why the governments of France, Britain, the US and Israel should not inform their citizens of the numbers and kinds of nuclear devices they have in stock, how much the weapons cost, how many of what kind they propose to build in future, and under what circumstances it is imagined that these devices would be used. Nor is there any reason not to disclose the full history of the development of chemical and biological weapons: to tell the American public, for example, why its tax money was used to develop something called ‘weapons-grade anthrax’. And there is no reason to keep secret the budget and the functions of the US National Security Agency, or of its British equivalent at Cheltenham. It is time for the public to be shown the texts of the agreements between governments that have made it possible to girdle the globe with more than seven hundred US military bases. There was little enough reason for refusing to make this sort of information public even when the Cold War was at its height. It is hard to imagine what help its disclosure could give to the terrorists.

The progress humanity made in the 19th and 20th centuries was largely due to the increased role of public opinion in determining government policies. But the lack of public concern about government secrecy has, in the last sixty years, created a new political culture in each of the democracies. In the US and in many of the EU countries, an elite has come to believe that it cannot carry out its mission of providing national security if its preparations are carried out in public. The events of 11 September greatly strengthened this conviction. Further attacks are likely to persuade those elites that they must destroy democracy in order to save it.

In a worst-case scenario, historians will someday have to explain why the golden age of Western democracy, like the age of the Antonines, lasted only about two hundred years. The saddest pages in their books are likely to be those in which they describe how the citizens of the democracies, by their craven acquiescence in governmental secrecy, helped bring the disaster on themselves.

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Vol. 26 No. 9 · 6 May 2004

Richard Rorty denounces the US Patriot Act without mentioning any of its provisions (LRB, 1 April). It is supported by George W. Bush and the ‘thoroughly sinister’ John Ashcroft and that is enough to damn it. The act was passed in Congress by large majorities of both parties in 2001 and was intended to improve the federal government’s ability to prevent terrorism. It included provisions allowing the CIA and FBI to communicate with each other about potential terrorists trying to enter the US, and to make it easier to obtain warrants to examine computers. The act also allows warranted searches of stored voice-mails on the same legal basis as stored emails, and national (as opposed to single-jurisdiction) search warrants for terrorism. It has not chilled public debate over the Bush administration and its actions. All of its provisions will be debated when it comes up for reauthorisation next year. It would be helpful if they were debated on their merits, weighing the sometimes conflicting demands of civil liberties and the prevention of terrorism.

Peter Connolly
Washington DC

Vol. 26 No. 10 · 20 May 2004

Objecting to Richard Rorty’s denunciation of John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act, Peter Connolly writes that the act was ‘passed in Congress by large majorities of both parties’ (Letters, 6 May). True, but it’s worth pointing out that the act that was passed was not the act that had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, in accordance with normal congressional procedure. Instead, shortly before the vote in Congress, Ashcroft’s office prevailed on the congressional leadership to substitute a new draft. This version of the act, rather than the draft that had been discussed, amended and approved in committee, was voted into law without members of Congress having any opportunity to read it, let alone debate it. One of the few votes against the act in its revised form came from John Conyers, the Democratic congressman who had sponsored the original act. Whatever the merits or demerits of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, to give it its full name, Ashcroft’s conduct in this case goes some way towards explaining Rorty’s characterisation of the US attorney general as ‘thoroughly sinister’.

Phil Edwards

Vol. 26 No. 8 · 15 April 2004

Richard Rorty suggests that if, hypothetically, a major natural disaster were to occur, with the result that thousands of people died, the survivors could expect no fundamental alteration in their country's institutional life to take place (LRB, 1 April). So how, he asks, could it be justified to alter those institutions in order to avert the possibility of terrorist attacks in which thousands of people might die? This is like saying that, since there is no point in crying over spilt milk, there is no point in taking steps to avoid spilling milk.

Gerald Lang

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