A war on terror or democracy?

The greatest threat facing liberal democracies is the belief that ultimate protection necessitates ultimate sacrifices.

December 16, 2015 21:04
3 minute read.



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An American friend recently asked me if I realize that “we are under attack.” Like many in Europe and the United States, my friend maintains that Islamic State is the greatest threat facing liberal democracies today. Yet he is wrong. The greatest threat facing liberal democracies is the belief that ultimate protection necessitates ultimate sacrifices.

For Donald Trump, ultimate protection necessitates turning away Muslim migrants and sacrificing America’s very character. Long gone are the days when the Statue of Liberty greeted immigrants with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses....” Had Lady Liberty been given to the United States today, the French would have inscribed on the plaque in its base the words: “All liquids must be presented at security in transparent sizable bags.”

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Trump is by no means the first American to demand such sacrifices.

The rhetoric of sacrifice was but one weapon used by president George W. Bush when declaring the War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks. Other weapons, introduced through the legislation of the Patriot Act, included the establishment of secret courts able to issue secret indictments, the use of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and mass surveillance of global citizens.

While some laws curtailed the domestic reach of US intelligence agencies, such laws failed to protect the citizens of the free world America claims to lead.

Following the Patriot Act legislation, Gore Vidal remarked that one cannot declare a war on terror, as terror is just an abstract. The War on Terror, he argued, was akin to a war on dandruff. Yet for all his wit, Vidal was mistaken. The War on Terror is akin to a war on democracy.

In the United Kingdom, the War on Terror prompted the government to assassinate two of its citizens in Syria earlier this year.

These citizens were denied a trial, were not represented by lawyers and were not judged by a jury of their peers. The intelligence that incriminated these citizens was not shared with the general public nor has there been a public debate on government’s authority to murder its citizens without due process.

Under the awesome threat of terror, governments continue to amass awesome powers, including those that negate 400 years of democratic tradition.

The attacks in Paris last month seem destined to further both the War on Terror and the war on democracy. At a time when anyone in Paris may be a terrorist, everyone in Paris must be treated as a terrorist.

And as all of French society is at risk, all of French society must be regarded as a risk. Like the Americans after 9/11, the French are now told that managing the risk of terror can be achieved only through surveillance, the curtailing of their freedoms and public ignorance of the very threats they face.

One can only imagine the intrusiveness and callousness of a Patriot Act cocked à la provençale by Marine Le Pen. Given the results of this week’s regional elections in France, such a bill now seems unlikely. Yet despite recent setbacks, the specter of the National Front continues to haunt France and Europe.

Islamic State’s crusade means to eradicate the way of life of all those living in liberal democracies. It aims to deter us from celebrating diversity, to prevent us from expressing individuality and to distance us from our values and beliefs. Indeed, Islamic State attacked Paris because it symbolizes the freedoms we hold dear – the freedom to support a religious cleric or a secular politician, to claim that God is dead or alive, to make love to a man or a woman or even both, and the freedom to rail against government while standing in line to receive services from that same government.

Our way of life may indeed be under attack. Yet more dangerous than Islamic State are those who demand of us to sacrifice our democratic values in the name of national security. For what good is a secure France, or Britain or US if they no longer embody what they have fought so hard to protect. Sacrificing democracy to protect democracy and giving in to the Trumps and the Le Pens is the best way to ensure an Islamic State victory.

Ilan Manor is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. He has previously contributed to
The Jerusalem Post and The Jewish Daily Forward. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com

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