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February 8, 2005

Five principles for a safer future

Versión en español: Cinco principios para un mundo más seguro

In the weeks following the 11 September 2001 attacks, federal authorities in the United States acted at times in a "wholly unacceptable" way, arresting immigrants on questionable tips, not always providing speedy access to lawyers and abusing the detainees. This is not an accusation launched by the left or by human-rights groups but an admission made during Senate confirmation hearings by Michael Chertoff who, as head of the criminal division of the justice department, was one of the key figures directing the post-9/11 sweep that resulted in the detention of hundreds of innocent Muslims.

More barbarities have followed – from torture in Abu Ghraib to “extraordinary rendition”, imprisonment without trial in Guantánamo (and Belmarsh, on the territory of the US’s British ally) and the re-adoption of death squads as official US policy.

Terrorism itself is barbaric. It is indefensible and immoral. But it is rarely a threat to the continued existence of a democracy unless that democracy connives in the damage. Yet both George W Bush and Tony Blair have set their administrations on the path of connivance over the last three years. In memory of the innocent victims both of terrorism and the "war on terror" I would like to offer five tentative principles on which a democratic response to terror should be based:

  1. Keep the threat in proportion. Horrific though the attacks on New York, Washington, Bali and Madrid were, we should be absolutely clear that none of them at any time threatened the state, the government or the way of life of the United States or Indonesia or Spain. In the United States, the government continued to govern, the courts continued to function and the press continued to report, albeit with a certain loss of form. Spain held a peaceful democratic election within days of the Atocha atrocity. Indonesia witnessed arguably its first clean presidential election. To acknowledge that life went on is in no way to diminish the pain and grief suffered by the victims or their families. To fail to acknowledge it is to exploit those victims in a squalid political game.
  2. Do not inflate the capacities of the terrorist. The point of terror for a terrorist is exactly that – to terrorise: to frighten peoples and their governments into behaviour that furthers your aims. The more democracies play along with the terrorist, the better it is for them. So every time a democratic leader talks about the great evil out there, named or unnamed, that’s out to destroy life-as-we-know-it, he’s doing it a huge favour. If the president of the United States, to pick an example at random, feels it necessary to invade not one but two countries and to use the rhetoric of perpetual war to a people who lack the information to contradict him, the terrorist should send him a thank-you note. Indeed Osama bin Laden did so.
  3. Hang on to your moral advantage. Most people in the world, given the chance, prefer to live under a government of their choosing, run by men and women whom they trust and who conduct themselves transparently, honestly and with integrity. The fact that President Bush says this too does not make it false. Unfortunately, this choice is presently denied to most people and, even where it theoretically exists, the results are not always as good as they might be. Nevertheless, given the opportunity, people prefer democracy to tyranny.

    Those who pursue another agenda must therefore discredit democracy in order to win recruits. The challenge for the democracies, then, is to demonstrate that they are indeed superior forms of government, true to their principles: of the rule of law, separation of powers, respect for civil and human rights, a preference for non-violent solutions. It won’t impress the true believers, but they are lost anyway. It will keep the majority and that’s what counts. Failure to keep to fundamentals enables extremists to persuade their recruits that democracies are hypocritical, disguising a lack of principle beneath empty rhetoric.

    Bush and Blair have acted as recruiting sergeants for terror by abandoning these principles in several vital respects. Both have conspired to undermine one of the central attributes of democracy – the rule of law and equal access to justice. Both have conspired to further the use of torture, arbitrary detention, detention without trial and extra-judicial murder. It is interesting to note that where there has been successful resistance to these policies, it has been in the law courts and not, so far, in the legislatures, at the ballot-box or on the streets – a political failure that should be of deep concern to any democracy.

  4. Never politicise your intelligence services. You need them to tell you what is going on. This is trickier than it looks. It is not easy, for a start, to find out what is going on. Moreover, it is very difficult to interpret the data you collect. Nobody, not even members of the intelligence services, likes to be thought a fool and institutions will always tend towards an interpretive view that finds them favour with their political masters. Remember that when the US administration liked to pump up the threat of the Soviet Union, none of the cold warriors in the intelligence services foresaw the events of 1989. Even to suggest that it was inherently implausible that Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua could bring the US to its knees was to risk being accused of commie sympathies. Maybe the principle is utopian. Maybe the message, then and now, is that if the leader really wants a war, the intelligence services will find him the excuse. This could be very dangerous, depending on the war.
  5. Intelligence is important but it should not drive policy. Even if you have managed to follow rule (4), you should bear in mind that, with the best will in the world, intelligence is not necessarily reliable. In view of recent events, I think we hardly need to spell this out. Intelligence informs policy, but it does not make it and the secret state should never be allowed to put itself beyond the law. Any information that is not challenged is unreliable. Any information gained by torture is doubly unreliable.
In conclusion, democracies must fight terror. But democracies defeat themselves if they adopt tactics that inspire revulsion and credible charges of hypocrisy. They win by retaining the loyalty of the large majority of people who reject terrorism as a tactic and authoritarianism as a form of rule. If terrorism is politics by other means, it must be contained and cultivated by a true public politics based on democratic principles.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
Members of the Club de Madrid

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