Bogus snipers hurting the 'war on terror'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am

As another anniversary of September 11 approaches, commentators inside and outside the United States continue to criticise the Bush administration by asserting that it has seriously undermined civil liberties. It is as though there is less to fear from the perpetrators of terrorist acts than from the electronic surveillance or detention policies of the US government. According to this view, democracy and the rule of law suffer more from attacks by their defenders than by their attackers.

Such remarks involve so much dissemblance, distortion and excess that a student writing such things would be sternly rebuked by an objective professor.

First, the Patriot Act tends to be depicted as the outcome of some heinous design that has deeply corrupted the concept of the notion of liberty. But it is false to depict the act as the embodiment of evil concocted by an unpopular president or as a hysterical reaction.

It became law with approval of the US Senate by a vote of 98 to 1 and in the House with a vote of 357 to 66 in October 2001. Up for renewal in March last year, it passed by 89 to 11 votes in the Senate and by 280 to 138 votes in the House.

One complaint is that the Patriot Act supposedly erodes habeas corpus - the right to appear in an independent court when detained by a government. But the laws of Britain and France that relate to arrest and detention offer fewer protections for the accused than those of America. And, in any case, most of the newly imposed restrictions on habeas corpus and civil liberties in the US have sunset clauses that limit their duration.

One sticking point is the detention of 'illegal combatants' in the military prison facilities of Guantanamo Bay. But the innovations in the Patriot Act were mostly aimed at acts of domestic terrorism that occur within the US.

As it is, almost all the people held at Guantanamo were captured in combat situations and are held under a different legal authority overseen by US military forces. Complaints about them being under arrest without trial ignore the fact that prisoners of war in any previous conflict are held under the same circumstances. It is beyond hyperbole to suggest that they are deprived of 'human rights' and treated inhumanely.

It is more than ironic that opponents of the Patriot Act demand high libertarian standards of freedom that they deny in supporting government intrusions based on social-democratic principles. For example, there are few complaints about the reduction of individual freedoms when governments forcibly redistribute income and wealth based on class warfare precepts.

One bogus concern is that the 'war on terror' has increased the threat of terrorist acts. This assertion overlooks the long lineage of jihad, or holy war, terrorism. As it is, radical seminaries in the Muslim world have long promoted these ideas.

Blaming the current or past ideological disposition of western governments for Islamist terrorism also ignores the timing and targets of other attacks. Consider the bombings in Bali and attacks on tourist sites in Egypt, beginning in the early 1990s, targeting Europeans and Egyptians.

The extremists and terrorists massing against civilisation can win if popular legitimacy and support for the conflict is undermined from within. We must defend our values by acting in accordance with them, but not be shackled by them, allowing ourselves to be defeated.

Countries that value democracy and freedom must defend against extremists whether they promote an authoritarian version of Islam, right-wing political fanaticism or populist socialism. The best path is to use tough but reasonable means to protect ourselves while seeking common ground with sensible moderates in the respective communities.

Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala