Sat, 15 May 2004

Defending liberty amid terrorism

Ralf Dahrendorf, Project Syndicate

The terrorism that we have come to associate with al-Qaeda is special in many ways. It is global, technologically sophisticated, but, above all, it is not about an achievable political objective.

It is not aimed at creating a united (Catholic) Ireland, an independent Basque country, or even a Palestinian state, but at a particular worldview and those who represent it. It is aimed at what used to be called the West, that is, a liberal order of things, a free world. Because the United States is the most visible and powerful representative of that free world, it is aimed against America and its closest allies in Europe and elsewhere.

This is a critical fact to remember. What we describe under the heading of al-Qaeda is an essentially negative, destructive movement. It does not offer an alternative view of the modern world other than the implicit claim that modernity is neither necessary nor desirable.

Moreover, that claim, when made by men who appear to be religious leaders, is almost certainly dishonest. Such leaders are using religion for their own highly modern political purposes; they use it to organize and mobilize their supporters -- to commit individual or collective suicide, if need be. In this they are not entirely dissimilar from the totalitarian leaders of fascist movements, who likewise built on popular frustration to pursue an essentially destructive purpose in the name of anti-modern beliefs and promises.

Violence born from such sources is difficult to fight. Signs of frustration with modernity are never hard to find. They are present in highly developed countries, but above all in entire regions of the world that are suspended between a yesterday that no longer exists and a tomorrow that has not yet come into being. How, then, do free countries deal with terrorist expressions of organized frustration?

Without doubt, the first priority for any free country must be to protect its citizens and assets against acts of terrorist violence. Given a globalized movement of fury, this is not simple. It requires measures that do not come easily to citizens, groups, and authorities steeped in a tradition of liberalism and tolerance.

We must accept that there are limits to tolerance. Opting out of the values and customs of free societies is problematic, but it is ultimately acceptable. Non-aggressive demonstrations of difference -- including Islamic headscarves worn by students or teachers in largely Christian countries -- should be bearable.

But violence should never be tolerated. The monopoly on the use of violence exercised by democratic states must be preserved, which may involve expelling non-citizens who choose violence or advocate its use, and the detention of citizens who have practiced or threatened it.

However, it is of critical importance that the treatment of terrorists and those suspected of terrorist acts remains strictly within the rule of law. Indefinite detention without trial is as unacceptable as defining people as "illegal combatants," to whom no rules of any kind apply. The status of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and the recent incidents of possibly systematic humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners cast doubt on the very values on which a liberal order is based. Such incidents make one wonder whether the terrorists have, in the end, achieved their aim of destroying the West and what it stands for.

Terrorism aimed at the destruction of the liberal order is a test of that order. This is particularly so if one accepts -- as I do -- intervention in the internal affairs of countries in order to prevent genocide or the murderous suppression of minorities and opposition groups. But intervention must never borrow methods from those against whom it is undertaken.

This applies also to the intervening powers' objectives. Terrorism of the al-Qaeda type is basically destructive. Any response must be basically constructive. The frustration of many in the economically developed countries is, like the frustration of entire countries in developing regions, a challenge.

This challenge cannot really be met by simply promising unlimited opportunities, as they uniquely exist in America. It requires a sense of social responsibility that accompanies and cushions the painful process of modernization. People who are suspended between a lost past and a future not yet gained need help. Such assistance will not yield immediate results, but awareness of the medium term -- which means readiness to face it by delaying immediate gratification -- is also a sign of a liberal order.

Thus, fighting al-Qaeda is not a war. It is partly self- defense, partly an assertion of the rule of law in difficult circumstances, and partly a constructive effort to redress the causes of frustration.

The writer is a member of the British House of Lords, a former Rector of the London School of Economics, and a former Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.