Richard Rorty: Our Liberties Are at Risk If We Succumb to Another Major Attack

Roundup: Historians' Take

Richard Rorty, who teaches philosophy at Stanford, in the London Review of Books (April 2004):

Europe is coming to grips with the fact that al-Qaeda's opponent is the West, not just America. The interior ministers of the EU nations have been holding meetings to co-ordinate anti-terrorist measures. The outcome of these meetings is likely to determine how many of their civil liberties Europeans will have to sacrifice.

We can be grateful that the recent terrorist attack in Madrid involved only conventional explosives. Within a year or two, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons may be commercially available. Eager customers will include not only rich playboys like Osama bin Laden but the leaders of various irredentist movements that have metamorphosed into well-financed criminal gangs. Once such weapons are used in Europe, whatever measures the interior ministers have previously agreed to propose will seem inadequate. They will hold another meeting, at which they will agree on more draconian measures.

If terrorists do get their hands on nuclear weapons, the most momentous result will not be the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It will be the fact that all the democracies will have to place themselves on a permanent war footing.

The measures their governments will consider it necessary to impose are likely to bring about the end of many of the socio-political institutions that emerged in Europe and North America in the past two centuries. They may return the West to something like feudalism.

The actions of the Bush Administration since September 11 have caused many Americans to think of the war on terrorism as potentially more dangerous than terrorism itself, even if it entailed nuclear explosions in many Western cities. If the direct effects of terrorism were all we had to worry about, their thinking goes, there would be no reason to fear that democratic institutions would not survive. After all, equivalent amounts of death and destruction caused by natural disasters would not threaten those institutions. If there were a sudden shift of tectonic plates that caused skyscrapers to collapse all around the Pacific Rim, hundreds of thousands of people would die within minutes. But the emergency powers claimed by governments would be temporary and local.

Yet if much less severe damage occurred as a result of terrorism, the officials charged with national security, those who bear the responsibility for preventing further attacks, will probably think it necessary to end the rule of law, as well as the responsiveness of governments to public opinion. Politicians and bureaucrats will strive to outdo one another in proposing outrageous measures. The rage felt when immense suffering is caused by human agency rather than by forces of nature will probably lead the public to accept these measures.

The result would not be a fascist putsch, but rather a cascade of government actions that would, in the course of a few years, bring about a fundamental change in the conditions of social life in the West.

The courts would be brushed aside, and the judiciary would lose its independence. Regional military commanders would be given the kind of authority that once belonged to locally elected officials. The media would be coerced into leaving protests against government decisions unreported.

Fear of such developments is, of course, more common among Americans like me than among Europeans. For it is only in the US that the Government has proclaimed a permanent state of war, and had that claim taken seriously by the citizens. Christopher Hitchens has jeeringly said that many American leftists are more afraid of Attorney-General John Ashcroft than they are of Osama bin Laden. I am exactly the sort of person Hitchens has in mind. Ever since the White House rammed the USA Patriot Act through Congress, I have spent more time worrying about what my Government will do than about what the terrorists will do.

The Patriot Act was a very complex omnium gatherum, hundreds of pages long. Like its British analogue, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, it was rushed through after September 11. Both pieces of legislation were probably drawn up simply by asking the security agencies to list the restrictions they found most inconvenient. We shall soon learn whether the Madrid bombings trigger the same sort of reaction by all or most of the governments of the EU.

I don't think the Bush Administration is filled with power-hungry crypto-fascists. Neither are the German or Spanish or British governments. But I do think the end of the rule of law could come about almost inadvertently through the sheer momentum of the institutional changes that are likely to be made in the name of the war on terrorism.

If there were a dozen successful terrorist attacks on European capitals, and if some of them used nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, the military and the national security bureaucracies in all the European countries would, almost inevitably, be granted powers that they had not previously wielded.

The public would find this fitting and proper. Local police forces would probably start working on instructions from the national capital. Any criticism by the media would be seen by the government as a source of aid and comfort to terrorism. European ministers of justice would echo Ashcroft's reply to critics of the Patriot Act."To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," Ashcroft said,"my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."...

In a worst-case scenario, historians will someday have to explain why the golden age of Western democracy lasted only about 200 years. The saddest pages in their books are likely to be those in which they describe how the citizens of the democracies, by their craven acquiescence in government secrecy, helped bring the disaster on themselves.

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Chris Osborne - 4/30/2004

It appears that Professor Rorty shares the dim views of General Tommy Franks, who also believes the U.S. would become a dictatorship in the wake of another 9/11.