Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Terrorism and Freedom

John Bedell

Since the horrible morning of September 11 I have often felt shock and anguish, and I have sometimes been angry, but I have never for a moment felt afraid. When I said this to one of my friends she called me an "optimist" in a tone of voice that made optimists sound like a particularly stupid tribe of fools. I think, on the contrary, that it is foolish to be afraid of bin Laden and his crew. I believe that the chance that I or those I love will be hurt or killed by terrorists is small, so I see little reason to be personally afraid. A simple actuarial analysis shows that automobiles and high-fat foods remain much greater threats to most of us. More important, I think the fundamentalists' campaign to overturn western civilization has no chance whatever of succeeding, so that even if I die, the ideals I hold most dear will certainly survive.

I am not an optimist in any ordinary sense. I assume that we will never eradicate terrorism, let alone "rid the world of evil," as our esteemed President vowed. I am sure there will be more terrorist attacks over the next few years. I doubt, though, that there will be another terrorist attack as savagely successful as those of September 11. I think that while the US has experienced a great tragedy, it is bin Laden who has suffered a military defeat, because he has lost at least four of his best men while we have only been strengthened.

In the days just after the attack much was made of how different these terrorists were from the half-crazy 19-year-olds we are used to see carrying out suicide bombings: older, better educated, able to blend into western society and maintain their discipline during long stays in the US, far from their bases and support systems. Able, in particular, to fly planes. Now we know that only four of the terrorists, the pilots themselves, were of this new type, and the rest were angry young men who could have stepped off the terrorist profile sheet. I suspect that while al Qaeda can probably produce hundreds or even thousands of ordinary fighters, it has few men like the pilots of September 11 willing to kill themselves in its cause. Their loss has hurt bin Laden and lessened the chance of another catastrophic attack. Yet the attacks have not weakened the US. The shock of September 11 has only strengthened the hand of the US government. 

The US will not be defeated by attacks like those of September 11, nor will such attacks ever challenge our civilization. Consider, by way of comparison, what Britain endured during the Nazi bombings of 1940:  more than 35,000 civilians and hundreds of pilots killed in nightly raids that went on for months, thousands of buildings destroyed, whole districts leveled. By 1945, more than 60,000 British civilians had been killed. Yet neither the blitz nor the V weapons got Hitler not an inch closer to his goal of European domination. The spirit of the British public never wavered, and their military machine grew ever stronger despite the pounding of factories and bases. We are much stronger than the Britain of 1940, and we can better afford the loss of six buildings and six thousand citizens than al Qaeda can afford the loss of 19 soldiers.

Worried westerners have long feared that fanatics could defeat rational people and democratic governments through their greater commitment to their extreme beliefs.  We see ourselves as the lukewarm proponents of ideals we are too comfortable care very much about; our own happiness and satisfaction, we worry, may make us less fierce, less determined, less willing to sacrifice. We suspect, with Yeats, that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," and we imagine moderation and reason overwhelmed by fundamentalism, extremism, and rage.

I think these fears are short-sighted and overblown. Our tradition of freedom and rational thought is now 2500 years old, and it has survived every assault thrown at it by fanatics and barbarians. The stream of free thought runs from Thucydides and Aristotle across the centuries to our own time, sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, but never broken. The modern democratic state that institutionalizes these values is a much newer creation, but I believe it is a strong and great one. The British and American democracies are now more than 200 years old and despite strange detours and horrific conflicts the democratic spirit continues to spread across the world. The fear that we will be too weak and cowardly to defend ourselves should be assuaged by the simple fact that we have always been able to find the courage when we really needed it. The Japanese mistook American wealth and ease for cowardice, as did Sadam Hussein 50 years later. For anyone afraid that the world's rational people will lack the will to defend themselves, I recommend the memoirs of RAF pilot Richard Hillary (The Final Enemy), in which he explained that he was fighting as much as anything else to show that dissipated, irreligious, moderate men like himself could beat Nazi fanatics. He was right.

I do not feel defensive about the values of democracy: freedom remains a mighty ideal, as strong as faith, tradition, or utopian fantasy. Communism is retreating, the Soviet empire has collapsed, Slobodan Milosevic is awaiting trial in the Hague. Fundamentalism is indeed a powerful force all around the world, but I think most of its political appeal stems merely from the corruption and brutality of so many secular regimes. Consider what has happened in Iran since 1979. Khomeini's revolution succeeded spectacularly for a time, but within a decade ordinary Iranians came to realize that they did not much prefer religious tyranny to the Shah's secular savagery, and in the past few elections moderates have won the vast majority of votes. Where has a real, functioning democracy ever been overthrown by its citizens? Nowhere.

Freedom, tolerance, and self-expression are not merely the excuses of the rich or the justifications of the self-indulgent. Fundamentalists like to think that the secular majorities of democratic states believe in nothing, but they are wrong. We believe in the promise of humanity. We believe in exercising our own minds. We believe in the right to choose our own way, our own leaders, our own faith. These are ideals as powerful as any, and our belief in them is strong. The democratic system of government is not just a compromise among greedy factions, but one of humanity's greatest creations, the institutional embodiment of our noblest sentiments. The constitutions and declarations of democratic states are texts as rich in meaning as any scripture, as full of promise as any apocalypse. As the leaders of democratic revolutions have always asserted, we were born to be free, not to be the slaves of tyrants or the pupils of priests. We must not be afraid of terrorists, or of the dark attractions of fanaticism and rage. We should take our stand on the ground of free thought, free speech, and freedom to pursue our own good in our own way. Here we will never be defeated.

October 14, 2001


From the 
Commonplace Book

The war provided . . . the opportunity to demonstrate in action our dislike of organized emotion and patriotism, the opportunity to prove to ourselves and to the world that our effete veneer was not as deep as our dislike of interference, the opportunity to prove that, undisciplined though we might be, we were a match for Hitler's dogma- fed youth.

--Richard Hillary



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