"We have set out to encourage reform and democracy in the greater Middle East as the alternatives to fanaticism, resentment, and terror."
-- President George W. Bush, on the first anniversary of the Iraq war.
WASHINGTON -- Most of us know democracy as a system of governance. Our president understands it as a ritual incantation, something summoned as a curative for everything from terrorism to impetigo.
Absent the weapons of mass destruction, the major predicate for our assault on Mesopotamia, George W. Bush now hawks democracy as the remedy for terrorism. Democracy will ameliorate many ills: social restiveness, dispossession, tribal division. But to peddle democracy as the solution to terrorism betrays a cheap misapprehension of both institutions.
Terrorism is, by its nature, a system for overthrowing an existing institution. That is what Quebec separatists used in the early 1970s in hopes of dividing a parliamentary democracy called Canada. Irish Republicans blew up much of Belfast and Derry, making little allowance for election years. The Baader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy and Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City all put the lie to the notion that democracy is a panacea against the use of terror.
In Algeria 15 years ago the government canceled elections because voters were about to choose a party of Islamic fundamentalists with links to terrorism. If the terrorists are not democrats, democracy is of little use to them.
Around the time U.S. bombs commenced delivering freedom's message to downtown Baghdad, Jennifer L. Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a human rights group, authored an essay in The Washington Quarterly titled "Promoting Democratization Can Combat Terrorism." The piece inventories the geomorphic barriers between terrorism and democratization. Her strongest argument seemed to be the evidence of things not seen.
Middle Eastern governments have devolved from mildly autocratic states to deeply repressive regimes wherein dissent vanishes along with the public forum democracy would give it.
"In such societies, severe repression drives all politics underground, placing the moderate opposition at a disadvantage and encouraging political extremism," she writes.
This is a valid point. But it also seems to reflect President Bush's seeming inability to distinguish between democracy and western values. Osama bin Laden does not hate us because we hold elections. He hates us because our networks carry beer commercials, our synagogues remain undefiled and our women drive.
Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings scholar and former CIA analyst, observed in another piece of writing this year that the greatest challenge facing the Arab world is the doctrinaire and half-baked qualities of its educational system, which delivers up degrees in theocratic studies that border on superstition.
Twenty years ago I had occasion to speak with Katherine Koob, one of the American hostages held in Iran by the Islamic students of Khomeini. She told of going from one cell to a shower, with her underwear wrapped in a towel. One of the guards wanted to know what was going on. She explained that she had underwear in there and "I thought the brothers would be offended to see it."
Her guard's reply was that they had assumed all American women prance around like that in front of men by custom. Their evidence was our television and, of course, what they had learned from their teachers. Given a vote, they'd probably have bombed us to smithereens at the first opportunity.
The reason democracy alone will not solve terror is that democracy can install governments that as often as not will seek to preserve the theory of democracy by repressing its fruits.
Tyranny is rarely a plausible solution to terror, but from no-fly lists to the magnetometer at the Library of Congress to the cameras at stoplights around this city, the hand that would stay the terrorist is feeling rather heavy upon the backs of its lambs.
The Iranians elected a theocratic tyranny shortly after their revolution. Hitler's national socialists were voted into office. Many a state has slowly boiled itself into slavery by turning up the temperature in the pot one degree at a time.
Before venturing too far into the game of playing Father Flannigan to the world, we should understand what our war of salvation is doing to us at home. Consider the hundred-year-old words of Auberon Herbert, who grasped the link between state and terror.
Herbert, who titled his essay "The Ethics of Dynamite," observed rather adroitly that men who serve their causes "with detestable weapons" may in fact be in error about striking for liberty, but the business of suppressing them is delicate stuff at which governments rarely shine.
Here is what Herbert said. It is long, but not nearly as long as The Patriot Act:
"If we cannot learn, if the only effect upon us of the presence of the dynamiter in our midst is to make us multiply punishments, invent restrictions, increase the number of our official spies, forbid public meetings, interfere with the press, put up gratings -- as in one country they propose to do -- in our House of Commons, scrutinize visitors under official microscopes, request them, as in Vienna, and I think now at Paris also, to be good enough to leave their greatcoats in the vestibules -- if we are in a word to trust to machinery, to harden our hearts, and simply to meet force with force, always irritating, always clumsy, and in the end fruitless, then I venture to prophesy that there lies before us a bitter and an evil time."
Once we wore the greatcoat of the Constitution, which is now in the vestibule. Now we propose to dress a stranger, unaware of our creeping nakedness.
Copyright ©1997-2005 PG Publishing Co., Inc