Root causes

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

As the USA PATRIOT Act lurches toward permanence — the president hopes to sign the bill reauthorizing it on Sept. 11 — I’m thinking, how about if, first, before something drastic happens, we sit down as a nation and have an honest chat about goals and priorities . . . you know, the kind that’s politically impermissible?

Before that can happen, of course, we have to wrench open the context of the discussion. It’s so narrow right now, so sandbagged with partisan assumptions, so stoked by an almost religious hysteria (all doubt, all common sense, aids the terrorists), we can’t ask basic questions about national security.

The argument for the PATRIOT Act is riddled with irony and contradiction, to wit: For some reason, at this point in our history, we have an unusually large number of “sworn enemies” who hate our freedoms so much that they are plotting 24/7 to destroy us; therefore, as the London bombings reminded us, something horrible could happen at any moment; and while such disasters can’t be prevented, the government needs ever greater ability to circumvent our civil liberties in order to protect us.

It needs access to our library records, for instance, because, according to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “We can’t have a situation where we provide a blanket safe haven for terrorists, that they can go to a library computer and communicate with their colleagues.”

Does our nation’s security really hinge on thwarting shifty, bearded guys who are waiting their turn behind neighborhood schoolchildren to log on to a free computer?

As dissenting Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said in a 70-page objection to the reconfirmation of the act: “There are numerous provisions in both the expiring and other sections of the PATRIOT Act that have little to do with combating terrorism, intrude on our privacy and civil liberties, and have been subject to repeated abuse and misuse by the Justice Department.”

This could be put a little less politely. The USA PATRIOT Act has no more to do with combating terrorism and making us safer than the invasion of Iraq. The act, with its more than 160 provisions, 16 of the most controversial of which are now up for reconsideration in the Senate (the House having OK’d them last week by a vote of 257 to 171), is a law-enforcement wish list of expanded investigative powers that the Bush administration rammed through Congress in the wake of 9/11. Like the invasion of Iraq, the act is a long-standing agenda item fobbed off on a freaked-out public as a response to terrorism.

Perhaps even more troublesome than the erosion of civil liberties that the act represents — more troublesome than the “institutionalization of racial and ethnic profiling,” as the dissenting Democrats put it — is the way in which the act distorts the national dialogue on how we can best respond to the real threat of terrorism.

Like shock and awe bombing, like the torture of prisoners, the USA PATRIOT Act purports to fight terrorists the way Raid goes after cockroaches: Eradicate ’em. Not only do suspected terrorists have no rights as human beings, terrorism itself has no context that’s worth the effort to understand.

Indeed, the very act of “understanding” is ridiculed by true believers as weak and wimpy — no matter that the 9/11 Commission report itself called for a preventive strategy that primarily addresses the politics of terrorism.

So who are these sworn enemies of ours who have so warped and subverted the national agenda?

“The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.”

So said Robert Pape, University of Chicago professor and author of “Dying To Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” in an interview in (note well) The American Conservative. Pape, widely recognized as the foremost expert on this issue, has compiled a database of every suicide bombing between 1980 and early 2004. “From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank,” he went on, “every major suicide-terrorist campaign — over 95 percent of all the incidents — has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.” The 9/11 attacks themselves stemmed from the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.

Terrorism has a context — root causes — and looking closely at those causes, and our own role in creating and perpetuating them, is the only approach to national security that has the least chance of success. In the absence of such an effort, the troublesome USA PATRIOT Act appears to be just another assault on freedom.