Democracy and Homeland Security: Strategies, Controversies, and Impact
Public Reason and the Foundations of Security
Wars between sovereign states, which is to say wars in the canonical sense, pose risks to national
security, in the canonical sense of the phrase national security.
War in this sense threatens the defeat of a country’s armed forces, the conversion
of its government and resources, and the subjugation of its people. The “war
on terror” in which the
Indeed, as many observers have pointed out, the war metaphor is inaccurate and misleading. It suggests wrongly that the effort we must engage in requires an intense but brief national mobilization, that justice must be administered with all the compromises necessitated by the exigencies of the battlefield, and that success can be achieved only through a kind of national unity that silences all dissent and honest debate. These are grave errors, and to tolerate these errors is to accept a danger to our national security more troubling and fundamental than the dangers posed by terrorism itself. James Madison noted at the dawn of American democracy that the only serious threat to American liberty was our own instruments of war and the fears and ambitions of war that threaten independence of spirit and judgment (Mattern 1991, 242). Independence of judgment may be the first casualty of fear, and hence of terrorism, and it is perhaps this fear that we should fear most, because the survival of democracy depends crucially upon the vigilance of a public that has the voice and the independence of judgment to keep the mistakes, the corruption, and the private ambitions of its government within tolerable bounds. Security against the encroachments of government has been prized throughout American history, but it is a kind of security quite threatened by our own fear of alien threats.
Short of precipitating an unwarranted abandonment of civil
liberties or providing cover for an internal revolutionary movement, such
as the theocratic self-described “revolution” that has already progressed
so far in this country, the discipline entailed by placing the nation on
a wartime footing also forecloses rational debate about how best to prevent
and contend with terrorism, and how to apportion resources between it and
the other threats to the very same interests that are threatened by terrorism.
Americans in our poorest neighborhoods have understandably felt less concern
about terrorism and have been less involved in the show of national solidarity
following the attacks of
Having said this, I will address in what follows the inadequacy of the war metaphor and the limited utility of military force in securing our collective safety, health, and economic well-being against the hazards posed by terrorist attacks. In accordance with the foregoing remarks, I will regard the threat of terrorism as predominantly an issue of public safety, not an issue of national security in the truest sense. I will argue that the phrase “war on terror” reflects a badly flawed strategy of self-defense, a strategy based on misconceptions about the foundations of security. Understanding what is foundational to security is essential to its effective pursuit, and I will argue that justice, in a sense implying mutual respect, mutual advantage, and mechanisms of public reason through which cooperation may proceed and conflict be resolved, is a necessary condition for sustainable peace and security. There is, in this sense, a convergence between what is just and what is pragmatic. Justice requires that all people be accorded equal respect and freedom, and to ignore this requirement is to undermine the foundations of our own security. I call this the convergence thesis, and I shall defend it in connection with terrorism, drawing on both contemporary and historical sources. The arguments will be comparative, in reflecting the experience of conflict in two different periods before our own.
The fundamental misconception underlying the notion of a war on terror is the idea that violent force—retaliatory, deterrent, and incapacitating force—constitutes itself the very means by which a well-ordered, stable, and secure peace is created. This way of thinking about security arises in part from the natural assumption that armed forces serve to deter at least some potential attackers (not all, obviously), but it also probably arises to some extent from a broader national mythology of crime and punishment. One can see this mythology at work in former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s efforts to broaden the application of the death penalty, in his efforts to enforce observance of sentencing guidelines by the federal judiciary, and in the language of “evil” and “evildoers” that pervades the Bush administration’s public response to the attacks of 9/11.
This mythology has grown and come to dominate American thinking about criminality through three decades of aggressively expanding reliance on penal confinement. With about two million inmates now behind bars, the overall incarceration rate in the United States now stands at about 900 per 100,000 adults, having quadrupled between 1975 and 1995 and having risen by about 4 percent per annum since then, yielding the highest incarceration rate in the world, yet also the worst violent crime rates by far of any economically advanced democracy. The addition of those on parole and probation swells the population of those within the “correctional” system to an astonishing 6.6 million, or one in every thirty-two adult residents (U.S. Department of Justice 2002). Through those same decades, federal investments in job training and social services have been sharply reduced, while indices of social health have declined (tracking such factors as child poverty, health, and mortality [Phillips 2002, 165–86]) and predictors of criminality have increased (e.g., a labor force nonparticipation rate for black men of 50 percent and deepening inequality [Hacker 1992; Currie 1985]), suggesting that as a society the United States is coming to rely increasingly on criminal penalties “to contain a growing social crisis concentrated in the bottom quarter of our population” (Currie 1998, 32).
The expansion of our prison system has taken place without any serious national dialogue about the extent to which we are allowing democracy, or a rule of law resting in “the consent of the governed,” to slip away and be replaced by a rule of law imposed on much of our population by force. The vision of a “war on terror” waged against “evildoers” has been similarly imposed without any encouragement of a serious national dialogue about the causes and prevention of terrorism, and what kind of world order would be most consistent with democratic values and a sustainable peace. Yet, faced with crime rates in the United States that set it apart from the rest of the advanced democratic world, we should be deeply embarrassed by the glib notion that people engage in terrorism and other forms of murder because they are “evil” or have fallen under the spell of “ideologies of murder” characteristic of undemocratic regimes. What shall we say of our own crime rates? That Americans just happen to be more “evil” as a people than others, or that we live under the kind of undemocratic regime that nurtures “ideologies of murder”? The only escape from such embarrassments is to recognize and address the underlying conditions that give rise to crime and terrorism, both abroad and at home—to recognize, in other words, that judged by international standards our efforts to maintain public order through force have failed, and more generally that the use of force can play only a marginal role in securing “domestic tranquility.” The effectiveness of the criminal justice system itself depends upon a broad base of respect, cooperation, and willing compliance with the laws, and this is true whether we are combating “ordinary” crime or crimes of terror.
In a recent review of the book An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (Frum and Perle 2003), Thomas Powers notes that it was shortly after the attacks of 9/11 that Perle, in an interview with the PBS television program Frontline, advocated waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to prevent further terrorist attacks on the United States: “Because having destroyed the Taliban, having destroyed Saddam’s regime, the message to the others is, ‘You’re next.’ Two words. Very efficient diplomacy. ‘You’re next, and if you don’t shut down the terrorist networks on your territory, we’ll take you down too’” (Perle, quoted in Powers 2004, 4). On this model of the so-called war on terror, war and the threat of further war are to be used to coerce the states that support terrorism, or that allow their territories to be used as staging areas for terrorism, into eradicating all terrorist activities within their borders. This model shades into an even more ambitious one, advocated by Perle and the Project for the New American Century and embraced by President Bush (see Donnelly 2000), which regards war and the threat of war as a way to replace closed, authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world with open, democratic ones. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in early 2003, the president held that “the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life” (quoted in Powers 2004, 5–6). There is some truth in this diagnosis; anti-Western terrorism does arise to some extent from the existence of death cults (see Buruma and Margalit 2004), and our security does require a more democratic world, a world in which relations among all people and states are predicated on mutual advantage, voluntary cooperation, and respect for norms of mutual respect and public reason. The truth in the diagnosis does not imply that the prescription of war will be efficacious in securing either democracy or security, however.
The fundamental fallacy in Perle’s conception of the means to achieving security is the notion that we can effectively coerce the cooperation of the governments from whose countries attacks may be launched. There are several reasons why this is not possible. One is that the world is too big, and our armed forces too small, to make good on such threats. Observers who understand the realities of U.S. troop strength began noting several months before the invasion of Iraq that in order to wage war in that country we would have to withdraw forces from Afghanistan before order was established there, and that we could not sustain a sufficient presence in Iraq long enough to guarantee order there, either. The advantages of massive firepower do not go very far in overcoming the limitations of manpower, when one’s aim is to maintain order or establish a new cooperative regime, instead of simply bringing down an old uncooperative one. We Americans owe our own independence from the British to this fact (Rothschild 2004), and since the obstacles to successful nation building would be as evident to our adversaries as the importance of leaving behind a stable and just society, they would have reason to regard expansive saber rattling as little more than bluff. Only a delusional regime would risk the prospect of creating a whole series of weakened countries in which terrorism might flourish even more virulently than it had before.
A second, and more fundamental, reason why it is not possible to coerce cooperation in the manner Perle envisions is that we lack the human intelligence to know whether the governments whose cooperation we require are in fact cooperating. As Philip Heymann writes:
After action against
We cannot procure the cooperation we need through threats,
nor even through a combination of threats and bribes, insists Heymann. Threats
can be deflected through deception, and bribes can produce only the minimum
of verifiable cooperation that is explicitly agreed to. Only long-term partnerships
grounded in mutual benefit promise “the richer benefits that come with the
other state actually wanting our plans to succeed or the
Heymann goes on to detail and illustrate a third limitation on the effectiveness of military force, namely the resentment and covert resistance it tends to inspire. Effective counterterrorism measures must include efforts to gather intelligence about terrorist activities abroad, and to succeed in this we require human sources, close surveillance, and the sympathy and willing cooperation of others. To succeed in this, we “will have to form mutually beneficial alliances” and refrain from using forms of retaliation and deterrence that “enrage potential terrorists and their supporters [and] . . . alienate those from whom the government needs support” (Heymann 2003, 80, 59). As many observers have noted, the disadvantages of using military force include the danger that doing so may exacerbate the Muslim world’s perception that it is mortally threatened by the United States and its allies, “making the problem of terrorism even worse” (de Wijk 2003, 26).
In developing his case, Heymann emphasizes the adverse repercussions of not only direct military action, which is bound to produce anger and reprisals when the innocent become victims, but also deviations from the conventional norms of procedural justice at trial:
The British “Diplock Courts” for
This form of “blowback” or resistance to perceived violations of justice and the norms of public fact-finding, evidence, and reasoned conflict resolution speaks to a second aspect of the relationship between justice and security. In general, military operations and tribunals cannot discriminate adequately between the guilty and the innocent, and because of this they tend to fuel further resentment and feelings of powerlessness, undermining the goodwill and voluntary cooperation that are essential to the effectiveness of more discriminating and vital methods of intelligence gathering, criminal investigation, and prosecution (Heymann 2003; see also Kahn 2003). Justice and a sober assessment of what is likely to be most effective both commend a criminal justice model, not a war model, and they commend just as importantly a focus on underlying causes and factors that enable a criminal justice model to succeed.
These observations about the limited value and counterproductive
aspects of using military force and military tribunals in fighting terrorism
suggest the importance of recognizing that justice is foundational to our
security. Breaches of justice convey disrespect and in doing so undermine
cooperation and inspire resentment and resistance. More generally, violations
of justice inspire demands for justice—for retribution or compensation—by
those who feel wronged, and when no legal institutional channels exist through
which such justice can be obtained, those demands for justice may manifest
themselves in vigilantism or terrorism. Terrorism, when it is not simply
pathological or a strategy adopted by states and their armed forces, is rooted
in a coincidence of two perceptions: a perception of having been done an
injustice, and a perception of being powerless to obtain fair consideration
and response to one’s complaint through legal means (Burtchael 1986; Barber
2003). These perceptions impel the aggrieved to “take justice into their
own hands,” as we say, though to say this is not to agree that what terrorists
do is in fact just, or that their perceptions are always accurate. The Klansmen
who terrorized American blacks with cross burnings, lynching, and other outrages
felt profoundly wronged by assertions of legal equality for blacks, but there
was no injustice at all in the assertion of such equality. Similarly, there
would seem to be little merit to the antigovernment rage of the terrorists
Indeed, the cumulative wisdom of serious political reflection—the very reflection on which our own political system is built—finds the solution to this problem in neutral adjudication, which is to say the acceptance of common laws and mechanisms of adjudication and enforcement that are structured as much as possible to render impartial and reasoned judgments. The acceptance of such laws and mechanisms involves accepting the legitimacy and authority of forms of evidence and reasoning that are essentially secular, in the sense that they do not presuppose the authority of any particular religious texts, cultural traditions, or local norms. This is what equal respect for all persons involved requires, and it is what is meant by the norms of public reason (Rawls 1993). From a pragmatic point of view, it is also the only feasible choice, because it is the only standard that people of divergent faiths and traditions who wish to resolve conflict could freely agree upon. None will consent to be judged under the distinctive norms of another, so each must accept a common language of adjudication. Public reason belongs, in this sense, to the foundations of security. Even if it is not the preferred idiom of all peoples, it provides a voice and mode of redress to those who may otherwise seek redress in more destructive ways.
In our present circumstances, these considerations compel us, for reasons of both justice and prudence, to recognize the legitimate jurisdiction of international law and international courts. Doing so would mean accepting modest limits on our national sovereignty, along with the possibility that some of our own citizens might be held accountable for crimes by such courts. The notion that a country can stand above the law on the world stage—judging for itself what is just and necessary in the use of violence and preemptive war—can be predicated only on the illusion of invincibility, the illusion that “superpower” status or divine mandate can render a country secure against the repercussions of frightening, humiliating, and enraging the citizens of many less powerful countries.
Writing at the close of the English Civil War and against the background of more than a century of religious warfare in Europe—seven civil wars in France alone between 1563 and 1580—Thomas Hobbes wrote (notoriously) of a state of war, a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death,” attributable to a willingness of people to judge good and evil for themselves, “without any regard at all to the public laws” (Hobbes 1994, 76, 464 [Lev. I. 13. 9; IV 46. 33]; see also Fullinwider 2003). It is this very willingness to inflict violence and exact vengeance on the strength of one’s private and partial judgments that dooms one to unending conflict, according to Hobbes. Each claims the liberty “to use his own power . . . for the preservation of his own nature,” but on these terms, “there can be no security to any man (how strong soever he be) of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live” (Hobbes 1994, 79, 80 [Lev. I. 14.1, 4]). “Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that . . . the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination [i.e., plotting], or by confederacy with others” (Hobbes 1994, 74 [Lev. I.13.1]). Hobbes speaks here of individuals and the fact that even the most powerful are not immune to threats on their lives plotted in secret and in cooperation with others who may be individually weaker but collectively sufficient to pose a threat. We are all vulnerable, and this makes it prudent for all of us to guard against the illusion that we can be powerful enough to be invulnerable and safely go it alone without a common system of law. Hobbes speaks here of individuals, but the point applies as much to states: In the absence of international law and a system of international courts that can offer a semblance of equal protection, the likelihood emphasized by Hobbes is that conflict will never end, and that the one who presumes himself above lawful equality will be brought down in time by an alliance of those who are individually weak but united by a desire to escape domination.
Hobbes argued, against the backdrop of the Reformation Wars, that security against wars fought over religious doctrine and sectarian identities requires the acceptance of a sovereign who combines civil and ecclesiastical power and uses that power to educate all citizens in an authoritative interpretation of the Christian Bible (Lloyd 1992; on identities, see Creppell 2003). What Hobbes saw, and we are seeing very clearly once again, is that the most severe penalties administered by governments can prove quite ineffective in securing order, especially (but not only) when people act from sincere religious motivations. What means to peace could there be, then, but to secure uniformity of religious belief? John Locke, who had originally seen no alternative to this himself, came to understand, however, that the theocratic scheme of Hobbes would inevitably require the use of coercive measures to impose an official state religion, and such measures would be resisted. It was Locke, then, who argued vigorously for principles of freedom of conscience and tolerance of religious differences by governments in order that people of differing faiths need not go to war to be able to practice their faiths (Horton and Mendus 1991). These principles, and Locke’s conception of a revocable social contract as the basis for governmental authority, inaugurated the tradition of liberal political theory from which the American Constitution largely springs, and provided a solution that worked. The success of principled toleration provides one kind of evidence for the convergence thesis: liberal justice embodies a form of fundamental respect for all human beings, a kind of respect that entails free and equal citizenship, including a right to free exercise of religion. People who are accorded such respect have no need to go to war in order to practice their religion, and we are all to that extent more secure.
Religion, or rather the failure to tolerate reasonable religious
diversity, is only one source of conflict, however. Religious tolerance provides
the basis for mutual advantage in the sphere of religious practice, but other
spheres of practice and well-being matter as well. The economic sphere is
perhaps the most important of these, and it was the experience of economic
conflict in the ancient world that gave rise to the concept of a constitutional
rule of law that protects citizens of all classes. One sees this in the claim
of Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, that he had crafted a body of law
that like a great shield protected the whole of
Conflict in the ancient Greek city-states revolved around land, debt, and the ever-present threat of starvation, which produced so much instability that “The cycle of constitutions (metabole politeion) became an obsession among Greek political analysts from the mid-fifth century B.C. . . . In city after city there was an oscillation between oligarchy and democracy, accompanied by civil war, wholesale killing, exile and confiscation” (Finley 1983, 101–2). What “democracy” meant to the ancient Greeks was a form of rule by a particular class, the poor or demos, aiming at the exclusive interest of that class, and unlimited by constitutional protections of the rights or interests of others—hence, the reference to exile and confiscation. It was, in this sense, the counterpart of oligarchy, a similarly unconstitutional form of rule by the rich. Plato, Aristotle, and other advocates of so-called mixed constitutions rejected both oligarchy and democracy as they knew them, because both forms of rule aimed not at the common good or good of all citizens, not at mutual advantage, but at the advantage of the ruling class or rulers themselves. Without a constitutional system that created legal protections of the rights of all citizens, and roles in the legislative and judicial functions of government through which all citizens had reasonable opportunities to protect their own interests, one could expect on the basis of Greek experience that the disenfranchised would pursue the protection of their interests and redress of their grievances through politically destabilizing extraconstitutional means.
In his dialogue, the Laws, Plato defends the convergence
thesis through mythological histories of five regimes:
Aristotle, who is regarded by many as the founder of political science, took it upon himself to defend this convergence thesis in a way that might prove more convincing to men of power than Plato’s mythology would, and he did so in an impressively systematic and empirical manner. Tradition has it that he and his students researched and compiled some three hundred constitutional histories. The ancient catalog of his works refers to 158 such histories, and the middle books of his Politics make extensive use of these histories in arguing that the perception of injustice (often accurate) is the most important general cause of conflict, political instability, and violent revolution. The lesson of history is that unjust regimes simply do not last very long, he argues, because those who perceive themselves to be victims of injustice and to lack access to constitutional forms of redress will become uncooperative and inclined to seek justice outside the law. Recognizing the limited utility of force and violence in creating and sustaining social and political order, he counsels tyrants, oligarchs, and unconstitutional democrats to recognize that sustainability, or the security of their regimes, requires “constitutional” rule, a “mixed” constitution that provides roles in the legislative and judicial functions of the state for members of all social classes, mutual advantage, limits on economic inequality to prevent political polarization, and legal protections of the interests of all citizens (Curren 2000, 103, 118–23). More broadly, he defends a vision of public education as a tool of statesmanship more fundamental than law and essential to creating a common civic culture of self-rule in accordance with norms of public reason—a civic culture of what would now be called democracy. In this way, he puts persuasion and instruction before force and violence, both as a matter of justice and as a matter of practicality.
The analyses and arguments of Plato and Aristotle, like those of Hobbes and Locke, were directed to the advantages to individuals of accepting the burdens of living together under a just, common government and rule of law, but they are similarly applicable to the condition of individual states in an age of globalization. In the international sphere as it now exists, the lesson of this history—both ancient and modern—is that we need to establish a global civic life and associated institutions founded in universal respect and principles of free and equal citizenship. We need to establish a mutually respectful language of global civic life that is essentially secular, but compatible with a plurality of faiths.
As Benjamin Barber has argued, security must in some way be provided to those who feel threatened in the expression of their faith by the forces of unregulated commercialization now sweeping the globe (Barber 2003). We live in what is essentially a state of global anarchy. The United States, writes Barber,
has itself quite consciously conspired in the creation of an international “order” that is actually an international disorder—a contrived war of all against all posturing as a free market but establishing conditions as favorable to the globalization of crime, weapons, prostitution, drugs, and terror as to the spread of unregulated markets. . . . In what amounts to a radically asymmetrical form of internationalism, Americans and their allies have globalized the economy, globalized trade, globalized the free movement of human and natural resources, and globalized the many vices associated with free markets as well. But they have not globalized the democratic, legal, and civic institutions that within nation-states contain and regulate capitalism and its free market institutions and prevent anarchy from prevailing. (Barber 2003, 85)
Terror, he goes on to say, “is the pathological expression of a resentment and despair far more widely felt by those abused and marginalized by the anarchy of global market relations” (Barber 2003, 86). Unregulated global markets are threatening to many people’s ways of life now, just as unregulated domestic markets were threatening to the ways of life that many Britons and Americans knew at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Misery and the resistance it inspired did not abate until regulatory schemes protective of workers’ interests were enacted, and there is no reason to think that the resistance we are now witnessing will abate until an international regulatory scheme that is similarly protective of the world’s far more diverse citizens is enacted. History suggests that a world order that does justice to the material and cultural interests of these diverse citizens is foundational to our long-term security interests, but it also suggests we will ignore this lesson until our hand is forced by crises much greater than we have yet endured.
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