Extremism in the defence of liberty
Paul Robinson says that some
well-respected hawks are threatening civilisation by advocating
terror tactics in the war on terror
‘I don’t know what effect these men will
have upon the enemy,’ said the Duke of Wellington of his troops,
‘but, by God, they terrify me.’ I feel much the same way about some
of those who purport to be on our side in the so-called Global War
on Terror (GWoT).
|‘You’d think he’d do more with his
It is not just that these people want to drag us into perpetual war.
It is how they want us to wage their war that causes me alarm. A concerted
effort is underway to persuade us to abandon our civil liberties;
to lock up people indefinitely without trial, torture them, and execute
them; and if we can’t get who we want, to target their families, neighbours
and other innocents to terrorise them into surrendering. In short,
the call is that in order to defeat terrorism we must become terrorists
Those making these demands can no longer be ignored. We have to expose
them, confront them and defeat them. Already in this country we have
David Blunkett with his plans for ‘pre-emptive detention’, secret
trials and the indefinite imprisonment of suspects on evidence which
the Home Office has admitted might come from torture in other countries.
The slippery slope from Blunkettism to state terrorism is but a short
one, and if we do not start the fight against it now, we may find
we have lost already.
There is, alas, a seriously psychopathic tendency on the loose, and
its influence is growing, especially in the United States. Take, for
instance, Ralph Peters, author of ‘Civilian casualties: no apology
needed’ (Wall Street Journal, July 2002). Peters is a highly respected
commentator on security issues in the United States. He writes regularly
for the journals of the US military, and is read widely by both those
who make policy and those who carry it out. The GWoT, in his eyes,
is a war ‘to exterminate human monsters’. Anybody in any way associated
with them, even if not by their own will, is a legitimate target.
If you can’t get the terrorists, Peters argues, get their families.
‘We Americans’, he writes, ‘must be willing to pursue the terrorists
through their relatives. ... If you cannot kill your enemy, threaten
what he holds dear.’ Only ‘outdated convention’ holds us back from
the necessary ruthlessness.
Others take the argument further. Frances Kamm, a professor of philosophy
at Harvard University, has been doing the lecture circuit in America
and England, promoting the view that it may be legitimate to target
non-combatants directly. She argues that if an attack planned against
a military target is likely to kill, say, 50 innocent people in collateral
damage, you might as well just kill 40 of them directly. What’s more,
if it will help to terrorise others, you should kill them ‘in a particularly
horrible way’. You can then congratulate yourself on having saved
ten lives! Better yet, you are only allowed to ‘terror-kill’, as she
calls it, as many innocent people as you could have killed anyway.
So if you are a powerless refugee, you are not allowed to kill any,
but if you are a great power, you can kill hundreds of thousands.
Best of all, if their country is engaged in what you deem to be an
unjust war, then they are merely enjoying ‘life they could only have
had as an ill-gotten gain from a great injustice’, and you are positively
urged to kill them at once and put a stop to it.
Kamm’s commendation of legalised state terrorism is mirrored in numerous
other examples. Perhaps the best known is the proposal by the famous
lawyer Alan Dershowitz to legalise judicial questioning under torture.
Dershowitz recommends the insertion of sterilised needles under the
fingernails to produce ‘excruciating pain’. ‘Pain is not the worst
thing in the world,’ he says. ‘You get over it.’
One might argue that extremists such as Peters, Kamm and Dershowitz
are unimportant, as they exist on the fringes and have no effect on
actual policy. Such complacency would be a mistake. The only way to
prevent their arguments from gaining ground is to fight them. If they
become accepted within the spectrum of normal opinion, they will recruit
more and more adherents. In addition, these people are not in fact
without influence. Methods of warfare once considered unacceptable
are now common practice, ‘targeted killings’ and ‘torture-lite’ being
the clearest examples.
The more often these views are expressed as normal, the less opposition
they seem to generate. A journalist who attended a meeting at which
Dershowitz suggested legalising torture noted that the really shocking
thing was that not one person in the audience replied that it might
be wrong. Even in this country, some no longer consider such views
unacceptable. Respectable universities would think twice before inviting
someone like David Irving to speak, but Oxford, London and others
welcome Professor Kamm to spread her views that it is fine to ‘terror-kill’
the innocent as long as you ‘have the capacity to harm them as badly
in some other way or for some other reason’. The boundaries of respectability
have rarely seemed so fragile.
Bit by bit, these ideas have an effect. Dr Davida Kellogg, who has
taught military ethics to American officer cadets for many years,
told a conference at the Royal Military College of Canada that it
was becoming increasingly difficult to persuade America’s future officers
to treat the other side with respect. She confronts, she says, ‘intense
and sustained resistance’ to expectations that they behave ‘chivalrously’
towards civilians. The enemy are seen as beyond the pale; the normal
rules do not apply to them.
The British journalist Oliver Poole, embedded with American forces
during the invasion of Iraq, noted this phenomenon in practice during
last year’s invasion of Iraq. In his new book Black Knights, he states
that the Americans he was with considered Iraqis ‘barely human’. The
protection of American soldiers, he reports, was always a much higher
priority than the protection of the lives of Iraqi civilians. Faced
with gunfire from an Iraqi building, the response was, ‘Anyone still
in that building isn’t a civilian.’ The same attitude prevails today.
An Iraqi life, or an Afghan life, or the life of any civilian at the
receiving end of ‘Coalition’ military action, is clearly not worth
the same as an American or British life.
Thus, in a rabid, but sadly not untypical, response to the murder
of four Americans in Fallujah, the journalist Joseph Farah urged us
‘to make an example’ out of the Iraqi city. ‘We may need to flatten
Fallujah,’ he wrote. ‘We may need to destroy it. We may need to grind
it, pulverise it and salt the soil. ... Here’s an opportunity to show
that it doesn’t pay to resort to barbarism and terrorism.’ (Irony
is not Farah’s strong point.)
The American army didn’t go quite as far as Farah suggested — in response
to the four murders it has killed a mere 600 people in Fallujah, and
that does, I suppose, show restraint of a sort. But it is hardly an
advertisement for the discriminate and proportionate use of force.
Since today we have the technical means to reduce collateral damage,
and since we justify our wars in terms of protecting the innocent,
we have a special obligation to take every measure to do so. We will
not be fulfilling that obligation if we continue to shed blood on
the scale of recent weeks in Iraq. If we cannot govern the Iraqis
without killing them, we should leave their country immediately.
Actually, withdrawing might be the best thing we could do for them.
Far from provoking civil war, the sight of us running from a combined
Shia-Sunni offensive could provide Iraqis with a unifying myth of
self-liberation to bind the country together and enable them to face
the future with confidence. If we are not willing to leave, though,
we must at least resist the calls to abandon restraint.
Despite Tony Blair’s bizarre rantings, terrorism does not pose an
‘existential’ threat to our society, as Simon Jenkins rightly pointed
out in these pages a few weeks ago. Our civilisation is under threat,
but not from terrorists, whose power is extremely limited. Only we
ourselves can destroy the values that we cherish and which make us
great. We must hold on to the principles that guarantee our superiority
— our respect for the innocent, for due process and for justice. If
we stand firm, we can never be defeated.
Paul Robinson is assistant director of the Centre for Security
Studies at the University of Hull.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk