Richard Rorty on anti-terrorism and the national security state

Europe is coming to grips with the fact that al-Qaida’s opponent is the West, not just the United States. 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 attack in Madrid involved only conventional explosives. Within a year or two, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons (crafted in Pakistan or North Korea) may be commercially available. Eager customers will include not only rich playboys like Osama bin Laden but also 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 death 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 two centuries since the bourgeois revolutions. They may return the West to something like feudalism.

The actions of the Bush administration since 11 September 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 governmental 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.

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[*] Verso, 389 pp., £19.99, February, 1 85984578 9.