For Dershowitz, the sensible response to terrorism is to send out this message: “we will hunt you down and destroy your capacity to engage in terrorism.” What is most troubling here is the wilful blindness to root causes, combined with the old fantasy that terrorists are finite and can be physically hunted down and destroyed. It was Ami Ayalon – head of Shabak, Israel’s General Security Service between 1996 and 2000 – who observed that “those who want victory” against terror without addressing underlying grievances “want an unending war.”
Chaos and double standards
The lack of connection between chosen victim (Iraq) and stated problem (9/11) is reminiscent of a witch-hunt. And just as the old Salem witch-hunts were informed by settlers’ paranoia about Native Americans and “living on the edge of chaos”, so too the intellectuals who bolster the ‘war on terror’ tend to dwell on the threat of chaos….
Part of the intellectual context for 9/11 and its backlash has been set by Samuel Huntington’s influential thesis of a Clash of Civilisations. Huntington was responding to the breakdown of the East-West division and of the realist paradigm and also to the perceived unhelpfulness of the chaos model; in contrast to these models, he found the essence of contemporary and future conflict in competing ‘civilizations’, and saw the West as in danger of losing its place as a dominant civilization in the face of a number of new threats, including China, Latin America and, notably, Islam. Immigration was seen as (literally) bringing these threats home–especially immigration from Latin America to the US and from Islamic countries to Europe.
Meanwhile, humanitarian interventions were seen as following ‘civilizational’ lines.
Huntington’s argument has important empirical flaws. First, civilizations are not as distinct as Huntington makes out. Second, one gets little sense from Hungtington of how ethnicity is a result of conflict as much as a cause of it. Third, there are plenty of ‘counter-examples’ to Hungtington’s thesis on the cultural fault-lines of interventions. US-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were designed, at least in part, to help Muslims. So too, arguably, was the intervention in Somalia. Conversely, when Muslims have been killed in large numbers, the culprit has frequently been governments in the Arab world, as Paul Berman points out; of course, Saddam Hussein himself is responsible for killing very large numbers of Muslims; the Sudan government’s genocide against predominantly Muslim people in the west of the country is another example.
Even more significant, perhaps, than these empirical flaws is the dangerous nature of Huntington’s argument. First, the emphasis on the ongoing and impending conflict between the West and Islam can be seen as highly convenient for a US military establishment in search of a new enemy in the post-Cold War era, not least to justify continued military spending. (Some of the sources cited by Huntington on the strength of the Islamic threat are precisely US military personnel, so there is a weird circularity about the argument.)
Second, the book climaxes with an emphatic and intolerant rejection of multiculturalism in the US as the only way to keep “Western civilisation” strong; Huntington’s horror of cultural contamination is a distasteful echo of the horror expressed by extremists in the Islamic world; the advocacy of cultural ‘purity’ as a route to strength and safety has distinct fascistic overtones and clearly resonates (from whichever strain of fundamentalist thought) with the views of those who seek a ‘moral revival’ to ward off vulnerability to external and internal enemies.
A third danger with Huntington’s thesis–perhaps the most important–is that his diagnosis/prediction of an inevitable clash between civilizations has the potential to be damagingly self-fulfilling. Certainly, bin Laden has favoured this idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Huntington’s ‘West’, in other words, is an occident waiting to happen–and Bush and Blair are helping to fulfill the prophesy.
Since the US-led coalition has been moving back in many ways to the methods and the mind-set of witch-finders and inquisitors of old, it is not surprising that it is beginning to welcome back their favourite means of securing information and compliance: torture.
In one of the more frightening tomes on terrorism and counter-terrorism, law professor Alan Dershowitz observes wistfully that “we could easily wipe out international terrorism if we were not constrained by legal, moral, and humanitarian considerations.”
It is hard to think of a more deluded statement.
Pulling himself back from this vision of nirvana, Dershowitz proposes “a series of steps that can effectively reduce the frequency and severity of international terrorist attacks by striking an appropriate balance between security and liberty” It is here that torture enters its ugly head. Dershowitz suggests that torture could be a justifiable response to terrorism, giving the example of a ticking bomb where forcibly extracting information could save the lives of large numbers of civilians.
He also argues that with the US already subcontracting torture to third-party states, it is better if any torture gets an official warrant from the President of the Supreme Court; yet as Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth points out, “the fact that sometimes laws are violated does not mean you want to start legitimising the violation by getting some judge to authorise it. If you start opening the door, making a little exception here, a little exception there, you’ve basically sent the signal that the ends justify the means, and that’s exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks.”
Significantly, Dershowitz scarcely considers the terrorism that torture may precipitate. Sayyid Qutb, whose radical doctrines have fed into terrorism, himself was radicalised by being tortured in an Egyptian prison. So too was bin Laden’s longstanding professional partner Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim imprisoned at Bagram in Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay, said, “One of the quotes I heard people tell the guards a lot is that they weren’t terrorists before they came in, but they certainly will be when they leave.” Nor, as we have seen, is torture a reliable route to good information….
The road to this hellish ‘war on terror’ has been paved with good intentions as well as bad. A noxious cocktail of self-interest and self-delusion has nurtured the dangerous and deluded view that justice–like God, Halliburton and history–is ‘on our side’.