Friday, September 29, 2006

There has been copious, noisy, and confused debate over what we're fighting against: 'terror', 'violent extremism', 'Islamic fascism', 'jihadism', 'wahhabism', 'militant Islam', or just al Qaeda. It's all been hashed out at great length and to little productive end.

Meanwhile, there has been far too little discussion of what we're fighting for.

The wingnuts try to sidestep the question by pretending (or convincing themselves) that terrorism is an existential threat to the United States--that what we're fighting for is our survival. This is how they justify doing violence to the most fundamental principles of American government: if losing means we as a nation will cease to exist, then nearly anything is justified in the name of winning. All of which is complete nonsense; anyone who's paying even a little bit of attention can tell that there is no threat to our existence.

This is not to minimize the importance of keeping Americans safe from further terrorist attacks...but while we are talking about a non-trivial number of potential casualties, we're not talking about the End of Everything. At that point we're in the realm of tradeoffs: there are less expensive ways to save more lives than what we've been doing.

But I do believe in the fight against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups (including homegrown terrorists), and I believe there is something worth fighting for.

Given the nature of the enemy, it's clear what that is: we have to fight for an open, tolerant society, rather than a dictatorship of religious bigotry; for the rule of law, rather than the arbitrary rule of an all-powerful executive; for due process, rather than brute violence and kangaroo courts; for international norms of civilized behavior, rather than the barbaric cruelty of torture and beheadings.

And if we as a nation are to fight for these values, we have to live them. The 'war' isn't just a military matter; it's a struggle for the goodwill of the world. If we lose that, we lose the fight. Any merely military victory over some terrorist organization that does not also demonstrate the superiority of our values is ultimately meaningless.

Which means in this war, refraining from torture (or illegal detention or illegal wiretapping or any other tactic inconsistent with our values) isn't tying our hands; it's an affirmative tactic, one that advances our cause.

Conversely, every time Bush and company torture a suspect, or illegally detain random people without trial, or usurp the authority of Congress and the courts, it actively undermines our ability to fight the war. For five years, they have been making America weaker.

I think the Democrats have a tremendous opportunity (an opportunity that may be slipping away) to regain the initiative on national security by making the point that any 'war on terror' has to be fought as a war for American values. If the Democrats can articulate a vision of American superiority based not on mindless tribalism ('America! Fuck yeah!') but on our principles--as Roosevelt did when fascist aggression was the threat--if they can make the argument that these principles are integral to whatever power and influence we have in the world, then they can turn the debate over torture (and illegal detention and illegal wiretapping and executive supremacy) into one in which Republicans are on the defensive.

All it takes is courage and conviction. We have seen glimpses of them in the debate over the habeas corpus amendment. What we need now, and need desperately, is a whole lot more of both.

[Cross-posted at If I Ran the Zoo]

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