Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Progressive on the War on Terror

Sasha Abramsky rebuts his fellow leftists knee-jerk opposition to President Bush and the War on Terror and calls for Progressives to work to actively formulate a better plan than "pull out of Iraq and everything will be fine." This blind spot could render them politically moot in the future.
They assume that groups like al-Qaida are almost entirely reactive, responding to western policies and actions, rather than being pro-active creatures with a virulent homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but of conquest, destruction of rivals, and, ultimately and at its most megalomaniacal, absolute subjugation.

It misses the central point: that, unlike traditional “third-world” liberation movements looking for a bit of peace and quiet in which to nurture embryonic states, al-Qaida is classically imperialist, looking to subvert established social orders and to replace the cultural and institutional infrastructure of its enemies with a (divinely inspired) hierarchical autocracy of its own, looking to craft the next chapter of human history in its own image.

Simply blaming the never quite defined, yet implicitly all-powerful “west” for the ills of the world doesn’t explain why al-Qaida slaughtered thousands of Americans eighteen months before Saddam was overthrown. Nor does it explain the psychopathic joy this death cult takes in mass killings and in ritualistic, snuff-movie-style beheadings. The term “collateral damage” may be inept, but it at least suggests that the killing of civilians in pursuit of a state’s war aims is unintentional, regrettable; there is nothing unintentional, there is no regret, in the targeting of civilians by al-Qaida’s bombers.

Moreover, many of those who reflexively blame the west do not honestly hold up a mirror to the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and the racism and sexism and anti-semitism that is rife in many parts of it. If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force. But given the fundamentalist prejudices that are so much a part of bin Ladenism, the cry of western racism is a long way from being a case-closer.

We should attend to the way bin Laden and his followers invoke “the west.” They do so alternately to describe any expansive and domineering “first world” economic and political system and, even more ominously, to demarcate a set of ostensibly decadent liberal political, cultural, social, and religious beliefs and practices.

Indeed, what al-Qaida apparently hates most about “the west” are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment. These values stand in counterpoint to the tyrannical social code idealised by al-Qaida and by related political groupings such as Afghanistan’s Taliban.

In that sense, “the west” denotes less a geographical space than a mindset: a cultural presence or a sphere of anti-absolutist ideas that the Viennese-born philosopher Karl Popper termed the “open society.” In his day, when fascists and Stalinists held vast parts of the globe, the concept of “the west” prevailed over a smaller territory than today. But with the rise of bin Ladenism, the prevalence of this concept again is shrinking.

It is because bin Ladenism is waging war against the liberal ideal that much of the activist left’s response to 11 September 2001 and the London attacks is woefully, catastrophically inadequate. For we, as progressives, need to uphold the values of pluralism, rationalism, scepticism, women’s rights, and individual liberty and oppose ideologies and movements whose foundations rest on theocracy, obscurantism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for a lost empire.
So what's the difference between current policy and what he proposes?
There are progressive alternatives on the table. In 2004, for example, the New York Academy of Medicine published a report, Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public, arguing that encouraging a greater public involvement in pre-emptively preparing for large-scale terrorist attacks would actually prove more effective than simply relying on opaque instructions handed out by secret government agencies in the event of a civic emergency.

Others, like Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, have stressed the need to safeguard our chemical and nuclear plants, which Bush has refused to do, lest it cost companies money. And John Kerry dwelled on the importance of rounding up the “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union, a programme Bush has woefully underfunded. . .

In terms of laws to tackle terrorism, instead of activists denouncing any and all special legal powers granted courts and governments in this fight, how about acknowledging that organised terrorism does pose certain tricky legal questions and, from there, attempt to craft responses that, unlike those proposed by the right, don’t result in the creation of legal black holes for terrorism suspects? How about, for example, recognising that in wartime there might be legitimate grounds for pre-emptively detaining a person for a prescribed and limited period of time on a suspicion of plotting a major attack, while still denouncing the notion that such a person doesn’t have the right to an attorney or to a speedy trial?

Conservatives have made the war on terror all about military power and homeland security operations, while rarely addressing global economic inequalities and social injustices. The left’s challenge is to not produce an exact mirror image of this; that is too easy. We always denounce economic inequalities and social injustices. And we’re right to do so. But today that’s not enough.
These are good, broad points, and yes the devil is in the details, but more self-described progressives should take such an approach--indeed, shoulder such responsibility--instead of viewing everything through the prism of whether or not this or that benefits their own ideological position.

UPDATE: Interestingly, much of the Abramsky's arguments could have been made by President Bush. Maybe the President read Abramsky's piece before giving the aforelinked speech?

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