The Bush administration markets itself as the only viable defense against terrorism. Yet its tendency to equate differences in thought and lifestyle with threats to physical security in fact make us ever less secure. In this respect, it mimics the least savory aspects of our heritage and gives lie to the claim that the US is a model of freedom.
The Bush administration consistently implies that any criticism of its foreign policy undermines anti-terror efforts. A campaign ad before the Iowa caucus charged: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists. Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." The ad urged viewers to tell Congress "to support the President's policy of preemptive self-defense."
The ad is full of distortions and non-sequiturs. Democrats, like almost all Americans, are repulsed by terrorism. It is the role of preemptive wars, like Iraq, in eradicating terror that at the very least must be subject to a debate free from demonizing charges of disloyalty.
Recent reports by The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London suggest a different view: "A rump leadership (of al Qaeda) is still intact and over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq." A dissident CIA operative adds "US forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s."
Polls indicate that although Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the war in Iraq and with the economy, they remain overwhelmingly convinced that President Bush is the most likely to keep us safe from domestic terrorism. These poll numbers may reflect as much the ineptitude of the Kerry campaign as any deep faith in the President. Even the conservative Financial Times in London advocates a prompt and orderly end to an occupation that only increases Middle Eastern instability daily. Kerry's inability to stake out similar ground adds to his image as a flip flopper. It also reduces his ability to turn the Iraq invasion's role in incubating terror against the president.
Opposition -- even well-founded -- to US policies on Iraq, Palestine, Israel and Saudi Arabia does not justify terrorism. Nonetheless, terrorism is not merely a random and totally inexplicable act. Unwillingness to examine the depth of political opposition, even among many secular Middle Eastern groups, severely limits our ability to address the condition in which terrorism is more likely to thrive. It leaves us in little position to lay the educational, economic, and political foundations that help citizens understand and support civic norms and nonviolent means of expressing grievances. Even in the short run, many secular political leaders in the Middle East who oppose bin Laden will be less inclined to share their knowledge and their resources. They will fear collaboration with a government that casually jails Arabs, treats all disagreement as a threat, and reduces terrorism simply as "hatred of us for what we are."
US government treatment of political disagreement as hostility has a long, bipartisan history. Although resisting Soviet military expansion was vital in securing European democracy, containment was hardly limited to the preservation of territorial space. Cold Warriors treated social democratic resistance to US-supported regimes in Latin American, the Middle East and Asia as totally a product of Soviet interference. In the early '50s, a democratic regime in Iran with the effrontery to demand control of its own oil was overthrown by the US. The Shah was restored to power.
The Shah's secular but repressive and pro-Western regime inspired a fundamentalist revolution that further undermined liberties in Iran and threatened the US for decades.
Here at home, the PATRIOT Act continues the tradition of legislative initiatives that judge the threat to national security by the degree of dissent expressed. Today many look back in shame on the '40s and '50s, when membership in left-leaning organizations could disqualify one for a job. But scrutiny went even beyond mere membership. It was not uncommon for congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to treat advocacy of racial equality or women's rights as presumptive commitment to Communism and thus as disloyalty.
Hoover's mindset seems firmly entrenched in this administration. An FBI memo leaked in November 2003 seems both to codify and make explicit the administration's practice. It suggests the government now intends "a coordinated, nationwide effort to collect intelligence" on the anti-war movement. The memorandum singled out lawful protest activities.
Rather than fighting terror, the Bush administration's appears to be engaged in a cultural war to validate and secure its own conception of ethics, politics, and economics. Its efforts to limit democracy's proudest moments -- when we have forged more space for disparate ways of life and political perspectives to coexist -- are making us ever more fearful and less physically secure.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.