Posted on: February 9, 2011 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 7

People on the liberal/left side of the spectrum often don’t even like to use the word “terrorists.” But they exist, and folks, they’ve won.

The term “terrorist” has been badly and cynically abused, with some absurd folks (including Veep Joe Biden as well as more typically irresponsible and ignorant “leaders” like Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin even applying the term to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. But terrorism has a pretty clear definition: “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

Terrorism might have a variety of goals, but it is usually striving to get populations to abandon their values and act recklessly out of fear; it is often desired that their concern for others be diminished by their panic. This is useful because the target of terrorism is almost always a party that is more powerful than whomever’s cause the terrorists are championing. The more powerful party then acts with less concern than outsiders expect and this generates sympathy for the less powerful. It doesn’t always work (the Palestinians, historically, have had decidedly mixed results with this approach, which is why many groups have abandoned the tactic), but sometimes it does.

In the case of my country, the USA, the terrorists have clearly accomplished their goal. Fear that democracy may produce results we don’t like overcomes that most basic of American convictions: that everyone deserves freedom.

We can see this in the Reuters/Ipsos poll released today. 58% of those polled supported a “slow approach” by Washington regarding Egyptian democracy so we can manage it and forestall any “Islamists” taking power. Only 32% said that the US should support Egyptian democracy regardless of the risks.

Typically, Americans do not realize just how badly our hypocritical approach to democracy has hurt our international standing. The George W. Bush administration talked more about “spreading democracy” than perhaps any other president. Yet, when the Palestinians, in what was universally applauded as a free and fair election despite the obstacles of occupation, elected a majority of Hamas delegates to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, we brought the hammer down.

The argument that Hamas is a terrorist group, or Islamist, fundamentalist, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic cannot be held to mean we oppose a democratically elected government. No matter who it is (yes, including the Nazis) we must respond to their actions not their ideology.

I have great distaste for Hamas’ ideology and its practices, on many levels. In 2006, I very much wished the election had gone differently. But the results were what they were, and as a supposedly democratic superpower, it was America’s duty to deal with the results of the election. If Hamas abused their power, we (and Israel) could have legitimately responded; if the leadership leads the people to war, so be it. But we never gave them the chance to prove their claims that they were amenable to discussion, that they would allow Mahmoud Abbas to continue to pursue peace talks with Israel, etc.

Yes, Hamas is a group that engages in terrorism. They target and kill civilians. This was also true of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi and Yitzhak Shamir’s LEHI. Indeed, it was also true of America’s own continental army in the days of our war for independence against England, and in its dealings with the Native Americans. Yet, once these leaders were in power, they were given the chance to be judged by their actions in office.

In 2006 in my capacity at Jewish Voice for Peace, I wrote and issued a call for the US and Israel to be pragmatic and deal with Hamas. Let Hamas, I argued, prove itself one way or the other. But this was not done, and the message that was sent, not only to the Palestinians, but to the entire world was that Israel and the US only like democracy when the results are the ones we want.

The need to respect democracy is even truer for Egypt today, and the reason for fear considerably more remote. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has not engaged in violence for decades. Yes, they believe that a conservative version of Islam should be the guiding force of the country. They have the right to pursue that belief.

Might the MB, in the unlikely event they ever get control of Egypt, enact repressive laws in the country? Perhaps. Might they pursue foreign policies that conflict with American goals? Quite likely. Does that mean Egyptians don’t deserve democracy?

Let’s hold a mirror up to ourselves and our allies. Do we insist that Israel bar religious Jewish parties, or settler parties or those that advocate “cleansing” Israel of its Arab citizens or even transferring Palestinians out of the West Bank? At one time, Israel did bar racist parties, but not anymore. Now a racist party occupies a powerful position in the Knesset.

Or how should we explain that the world lets us run our own affairs even when our elections produce leaders who bring religious values to a woman’s freedom to control her own body, who pass legislation severely impinging on civil liberties and launch massive wars on false pretenses that kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people?

Yet 58% of us find it acceptable for the US to interfere with a call for freedom and democracy in a foreign country, out of fear of a group that has not engaged in violence in many years because we think they may not act as we want them to on the international stage. We would, instead, have the people of Egypt deal with slow reform under a government that has brutally repressed them for thirty years and would be led, in the American vision, by the lead torturer of that regime.

That’s why the terrorists have won. They have made us so fearful, so cowardly, that we believe it is perfectly ok for our feeling of security to be elevated far above other people’s most elementary human rights. It’s not new in America; we had a similar reaction during the Cold War when people in Cuba overwhelmingly supported a Communist revolution and when the people of Iran democratically elected a socialist leader who nationalized the country’s oil industry.

Communism then, like terrorism today, was the feared boogeyman that caused us to abandon our principles and to act in ways that brought enormous suffering to millions of people. And now, as then, there may be a real threat out there, but the greatest threat comes from our own fear.

7 People reacted on this

  1. We have a special breed of terrorist to consider: The terrorist who uses fear of other terrorists to advance their own agenda. These are the fear-mongers who hope that we are all so afraid to put foot outside door that we will let them make our descisions for us. And, as a society, we are letting these terrorists win, I agree.

    If we espouse that Democracy is to truly be about freedom, and the will of the People to have a hand in their own governance.. then when those self-same People do elect someone in a recognisably free electoral process.. even if that someone scares us.. We have to acknowledge the People’s right to have made that descision, and acknowledge that government as legitimate. It does not mean we have to approve of them, or be the best of friends. It does not mean we have to have economic relations with them. It does not mean we cannot criticise the choice. But we cannot, in good faith, call the legitimacy of the choice into question.

    There are ways of dealing with a less-than-favorable choice of government…

  2. Mitch, Hamas was elected democratically but their reason for being is the destruction of Israel, so it’s easy to conclude that there is nothing to discuss.

    You’re guessing that if they are given time they will mellow. Others would assume that if they are given time they would be using it to build up the means to wage war.

    With the MB we’re less certain about what they’re up to and they seem to have become a non-violent political party
    so it makes sense to have less fear of them. But also to be wary.

    Communism, after WW2 was not a boogeyman; It was a real threat. The USSR was apparently much weaker than the western governments thought but they did take over Eastern and Central Europe and it would not have been good for the free world if they had come to power in Italy or France.

    Likewise, was Mao’s victory good for China? His opposition wasn’t democratic but could it have been worse?

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