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9/11 and the new authoritarianism
Ralf Dahrendorf, author of numerous acclaimed books and a former
European Commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a
former Rector of the London School of Economics, and a former Warden of
St Antony's College, Oxford. His last piece on Webdiary was Parties and populists.
by Ralf Dahrendorf
Five years after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, “9/11” is no longer a mere date. It has entered the history books as the beginning of something new, a new era perhaps, but in any case a time of change. The terrorist bombings in Madrid and London and elsewhere will also be remembered; but it is “9/11” that has become the catchphrase, almost like “August 1914.”
But was it really a war that started on September 11, 2001? Not all are happy about this American notion. During the heyday of Irish terrorism in the UK, successive British governments went out of their way not to concede to the IRA the notion that a war was being waged. “War” would have meant acceptance of the terrorists as legitimate enemies, in a sense as equals in a bloody contest for which there are accepted rules of engagement.
This is neither a correct description nor a useful terminology for terrorist acts, which are more correctly described as criminal. By calling them war – and naming an opponent, usually al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden – the United States government has justified domestic changes that, before the 9/11 attacks, would have been unacceptable in any free country.
Most of these changes were embodied in the so-called “USA Patriot Act.” Though some of the changes simply involved administrative regulations, the Patriot Act’s overall effect was to erode the great pillars of liberty, such as habeas corpus, the right to recourse to an independent court whenever the state deprives an individual of his freedom. From an early date, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba became the symbol of something unheard of: the arrest without trial of “illegal combatants” who are deprived of all human rights.
The world now wonders how many more of these non-human humans are there in how many places. For everyone else, a kind of state of emergency was proclaimed that has allowed state interference in essential civil rights. Controls at borders have become an ordeal for many, and police persecution now burdens quite a few. A climate of fear has made life hard for anyone who looks suspicious or acts suspiciously, notably for Muslims.
Such restrictions on freedom did not meet with much public opposition when they were adopted. On the contrary, by and large it was the critics, not the supporters, of these measures who found themselves in trouble. In Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair supported the US attitude entirely, the government introduced similar measures and even offered a new theory. Blair was the first to argue that security is the first freedom. In other words, liberty is not the right of individuals to define their own lives, but the right of the state to restrict individual freedom in the name of a security that only the state can define. This is the beginning of a new authoritarianism.
The problem exists in all countries affected by the threat of terrorism, though in many it has not become quite as specific. In most countries of continental Europe, “9/11” has remained an American date. There is even a debate – and indeed some evidence – concerning the question of whether involvement in the “war against terrorism” has actually increased the threat of terrorist acts. Germans certainly use this argument to stay out of the action wherever possible.
This stance, however, has not prevented the spread of something for which a German word is used in other languages, too: Angst. A diffuse anxiety is gaining ground. People feel uneasy and worried, especially when traveling. Any train accident or airplane crash is now at first suspected of being an act of terrorism.
Thus, 9/11 has meant, directly or indirectly, a great shock, both psychologically and to our political systems. While terrorism is fought in the name of democracy, the fight has in fact led to a distinct weakening of democracy, owing to official legislation and popular angst. One of the worrying features of the 9/11 attacks is that it is hard to see their purpose beyond the perpetrators’ resentment of the West and its ways. But the West’s key features, democracy and the rule of law, have taken a far more severe battering at the hands of their defenders than by their attackers.
Two steps, above all, are needed to restore confidence in liberty within the democracies affected by the legacy of 9/11. First, we must make certain that the relevant legislation to meet the challenge of terrorism is strictly temporary. Some of today’s restrictions on habeas corpus and civil liberties have sunset clauses restricting their validity; all such rules should be re-examined by parliaments regularly.
Second, and more importantly, our leaders must seek to calm, rather than
exploit, public anxiety. The terrorists with whom we are currently at “war”
cannot win, because their dark vision will never gain broad popular legitimacy.
That is all the more reason for democrats to stand tall in defending our values
– first and foremost by acting in accordance with them.