Most of us feel that the new Homeland Security measures we read about (and experience at the airport) are worth it if they protect us from terrorists. In the April 1st issue of the London Review of Books, Richard Rorty writes that ?within a year or two, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons (crafted in Pakistan or North Korea) may be commercially available. If terrorists do get their hands on nuclear weapons, the most momentous result will not be the death of hundreds of thousands of 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 American since the?revolutions. They may return the West to something like feudalism.?
Could that happen here? Rorty believes that the anti- terrorism measures could eventually be more destructive than the terrorism itself. He writes, ?If the direct effects of terrorism were all we had to worry about?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?Yet if much less severe damage occurred as a result of terrorism? [governments] will probably think it necessary to end the rule of law, as well as the responsiveness of governments to public opinion.?
Does this mean we should fight against anti-terrorist measures? Not necessarily. But it DOES mean that we need to make sure they do not become permanent. Rorty says the result would be ?a cascade of governmental actions that would, in the course of a few years, bring about a fundamental change in the conditions of 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.? In other words, we would become just like those many countries, all over the world, that we have always pitied for their lack of freedom.
But Rorty is not a conspiracy theorist. He writes, ?I don?t think the Bush administration is filled with power-hungry crypto-fascists. Neither is the German or Spanish or Belgian government. But I do think the end of the rule of law could come about almost inadvertently, in both the U.S. and Europe, through the sheer momentum of the institutional changes that are likely to be made in the name of the war on terrorism.?
He thinks that if there continue to be successful attacks in Europe and the United States, these governments will be granted powers by their citizens that they have never had before, and any media criticism will be squelched. We will beat al-Qaeda eventually, but we may wake up to find that we?ve won the war on terrorism, but no longer live in a democracy. He says, ?At the end of this process of erosion, democracy would have been replaced by something quite different. This would probably be neither military dictatorship or?totalitarianism, but rather a relatively benevolent despotism?That sort of power structure survived the end of the Soviet Union and is now resolidifying under Putin and his fellow KGB alumni?Elections may still be held, but opposition parties are not allowed to pose any serious threat to the powers that be. Careers are less open to talent, and more dependent on connections with powerful persons.?
He thinks this future could include small businesses having to pay protection to the police or criminal organizations which are tolerated by them and a situation where it?s dangerous for citizens to complain about corruption in high officials. Rorty writes, ??In the poor countries most of society has always been, and still is, organized along [these] lines. In north-east Brazil, as in the villages of equatorial Africa and Central Asia, nobody would notice that the world had changed, that a light had gone out. But in the countries in which the greatest moral progress has been made, that progress would cease. After a few generations?fantasies of an open society might be cherished only by a few readers of old books.
??In the worst-case scenario, historians will someday have to explain why the golden days of Western democracy?lasted only about two hundred years. The saddest pages in their books are likely to be those in which they describe how the citizens of the democracies, by [giving in to] governmental secrecy, helped bring the disaster on themselves.?
We can agree to strict anti-terrorism measures only if we are prepared to demand that they be rescinded once this terrible time is over. Most important, we cannot allow ourselves to forget what we believe in.
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