John Buell

Security in Age of Terrorism

Some Democrats and even a few pundits think the Bush administration may suffer from increasing concerns about the adequacy of its efforts to forestall terror. Yet the Democrats are taking a big risk if they merely sit around awaiting further revelations about Sept. 11. Second-guessing won't cut it, especially with an administration that could deliver another October surprise, such as the capture of bin Laden. Democrats need to delineate the meaning of security in a world of portable nuclear bombs, bioterrorism, and governments with long histories of terrorist associations.

The president's apparently hard-nosed national security policy includes: 1) sophisticated armaments both to protect the nation and destroy potential enemies. 2) Close scrutiny of groups who profess dissenting views and jail for non-citizen suspected of support for terrorism. 3) A firm line between states that support and those who oppose the war on terrorism. 4) Even as it will hardly speak with its enemies, it grants virtual carte blanche to states deemed allies.

Every aspect of this agenda is both intellectually suspect and even open to increasing question from the general public. Billions are to be spent on an anti-ballistic missile system with a dubious record of technological success when the greatest threat seems to come from our own technologies. George Monbiot points out in the March 31 edition of the London Guardian, "The Russian state developed thermobaric bombs for use against Muslim guerrillas. Now, according to New Scientist, Muslim terrorists are trying to copy them. The United States has been producing weaponised anthrax. In 2001, anthrax stolen from this programme was used to terrorise America."

Despite potential nuclear weapons in suitcases and biological agents entering our ports, the Bush administration has opposed security enhancements for chemical plants and nuclear facilities. It effectively dismantles the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by developing a new generation of nuclear weaponry, including a "nuclear earth penetrator," a bunker-busting bomb useful primarily as a first strike weapon. The development of such technologies can only encourage other states to speed their own nuclear weaponry in an effort to blackmail or forestall US aggression.

The draconian war on suspected terrorists has been similarly counterproductive. Isabel Hilton points out in the same edition of the Guardian that veteran FBI officials consider Guantanamo to be not only wrong but also a waste of our resources: "After two years of appalling conditions, any prisoner &emdash; especially an innocent one &emdash; will despair ... he may talk, but, as any psychiatrist will testify, the information is unreliable. What an interrogator may perceive as a breakthrough may simply be a prisoner in despair of the truth, offering false confession, invented testimony." Hilton suggests that the only way you can know you have the right person is with a fair, independent hearing.

Not surprisingly, those deemed our allies are given a pass on civil liberties &emdash; with disastrous consequences. In a recent column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Central Asian scholar Nicole Jackson reported that: "After Sept. 11, the US created military bases in key Central Asian states to combat terrorism in the region. Uzbekistan has received the greatest share of the US aid. The bases are symbols that the US is aligning itself with authoritarian states and providing training to their repressive security structures. That fuels recruitment for extremist organizations, especially since they are the only avenues for dissent." Not surprisingly, Uzbekistan has experienced ruthless terrorist incidents, some of which have even been staged by female suicide bombers, a phenomenon that must give pause to the most ardent terrorist profilers.

The administration now also claims that the invasion of Iraq compelled Libya's Muamar Gadafy to renounce nuclear weapons. Yet Gadafy made similar overtures during the Clinton administration, and the evidence suggests that he was motivated by domestic considerations.

Nonetheless, there is a positive lesson here. A state has voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons &emdash; in part because Western powers were willing to negotiate with one of the world's most unpredictable and frequently despicable terrorists. Terrorism, whether practiced by states or by dissident groups, is a crime that demands punishment and redress from governments and international organizations. But longtime British Labor Party figure Tony Benn recently quipped (Democracy Now!) that many of the worst terrorist opponents of British rule ended up having tea with the Queen. It is appropriate that redress for past wrongs be sought, but at the same time history goes on and mutually beneficial accords can and must be negotiated to reduce the likelihood of future violence.

For at least a brief point in history, the world became more secure when Soviet Communism fell. But these accomplishments were not a consequence of unilateral US willingness preemptively to roll back communism. They were a tribute to containment, a willingness to negotiate whenever possible, and the role that political liberties and equitable prosperity in Western Europe played in undermining the morale of Stalinist societies.

Columbia University historian John Patrick Diggins reminds us that according to Anatoly Dobrynin's memoirs, "US military spending was far less crucial than Reagan's coming to realize the importance of establishing good relations with Russia," a move that enabled Gorbachev to embark upon "new thinking" and launch his reforms. Reagan himself, in his autobiography, writes of changing his mind about the "evil empire" upon visiting Moscow for a summit in May 1988. The Soviet citizens, he wrote, were "indistinguishable from people I had seen all my life on the countless streets in America."

If even Ronald Reagan could learn to trust and verify, Democrats shouldn't be afraid to remind Americans that a world of simple black and white is actually more dangerous.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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