Two Wrong Paths
16 September 2001
In the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon this week, Americans have responded with despair, camaraderie, sympathy, and anger. Seeking to punish those behind the attacks is just. Feeling angry is both normal and healthy. There must, however, be a connection between the actions of September 11 and our reactions that serves justice, not vengeance. We could ruin the fabric of our constitution by trading civil liberties for a narrow conception of security. And we could respond in barbaric fashion to the barbaric attacks, and lower ourselves to the level of our enemies.
The United States has one of the most open societies on the planet. The freedoms enumerated in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and case law allow the government to make measured steps to protect the populace. The government must, however, refrain from actions that would destroy the fabric of the polity in order to save it. Some politicians have already called for trading some civil liberties in the name of increased security. William Cohen, a former Republican senator and Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, has been calling for such a trade-off for years.
Some measures specific to air travel—stringent scrutiny of all air travelers, increased police presence at airports, or improved screening of baggage—are both prudent and welcome. The American public should resist other actions that would single out particular racial or ethnic groups for special scrutiny. Already this week, an Amtrak train stopped for 90 minutes in Providence because a man in a turban had a small knife. That man was a devout Sikh, who wear turbans and ceremonial knives and combs. Authorities have detained Arab pilots at New York airports. Passengers with Arab surnames or dark complexions have endured extra scrutiny by airlines. That airlines and airport authorities are engaging in racial profiling is bad enough. Worse is that the authorities are leaking their actions to the media, who breathlessly relay the detentions to the public.
Americans need to ignore those in our society who would associate all Muslims and Arabs with the demented actions of a very few zealots. Religious and political leaders must continue to proclaim their solidarity with those who have been harassed or attacked. One of the most regrettable episodes in American history was the confinement of Japanese-Americans in World War II. The media need to put the spotlight on the talk radio hosts who have called for similar or worse actions against Arab-Americans or Muslims.
In addition to the domestic threat toward civil liberties, the aftermath of the bombings may present a threat to peace. Some conservatives are calling for truly immoderate reprisals against Osama bin Laden and the country of Afghanistan, even though bin Laden is still only a "prime suspect" and there is no evidence of involvement by the Afghani government. These conservatives call for retaliation that in many respects outstrips the cruelty of the attacks on New York and Washington. If President Bush follows their prescriptions, he will doubtless kill more innocent civilians than the terrorists did in the United States. If he is unlucky, he will start World War III.
Time is on the side of an American government that seeks to act hastily. Time would let the administration find out exactly who is responsible for the attacks. It would let America build an international united front against the sort of terror that the world saw in New York and Washington. Most importantly, it would allow the administration to decide appropriate courses of action. America can take the time to bring the accomplices of the hijackers to justice. However, the President's vows to treat those "harboring" the perpetrators harshly are rash and counterproductive. News accounts relate that many of the hijackers lived for months, if not years, in Florida and New England. The President surely intends no military action within those states, yet his rhetoric remains incendiary.
The predilections of American leaders in the realm of foreign policy have come back to haunt the American people. For decades, American administrations too often defined allies as those countries that would welcome American troops or sufficiently denounce communism. In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States maintained close ties with Pakistan, in spite of a bustling Pakistani plan to develop nuclear weapons. The United States also allied itself with dubious groups within Afghanistan; according to a 1996 report in The Atlantic, the CIA sent over $3 billion to Afghan rebels over more than a decade. All of these groups were fundamentalist groups opposed not only to the communist government of Afghanistan, but to secular government in general and Western secular governments in particular.
American leaders also have not learned from what one of their closest allies has experienced. Israel has endured decades of suicide bombings by a number of Palestinian groups. But these bombings are part of a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack. Because Israel insists on immediate retaliation for every terrorist attack, it ensures that innocent Palestinians die, that Palestinians have further rationale for their actions, and that an undeclared war will continue.
The most likely actions by the Bush administration are air strikes against various locations in Afghanistan. If these air strikes work like those against Sudan and Iraq during the Clinton presidency or against Libya in the Reagan presidency, they will not have their intended effect. Those previous actions failed to kill their intended targets. They instead killed hundreds of civilians and enraged a new generation of terrorists who view the United States as irredeemably evil.
The acts by the terrorists in Boston, New York, and Washington were so appalling that among the countries and organizations denouncing them were Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and the PLO, none of which even resemble allies of the United States. The Bush administration would do well to gather as broad a coalition as possible to oppose the organizations or countries ultimately behind the terrorists. But the Bush administration must take pains to show the world that America's strength is more than its impressive military might. Our reaction must be rational, not visceral. Our rhetoric must be impassioned without being hateful. History will judge the terrorists harshly. And how America treats its adversaries will determine how history will judge the America and its leaders.
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