America must fight against terrorism at home

If the campaign in Afghanistan is to be matched on the home front, the US needs a new civil rights approach, says Amity Shlaes.

Relief was the main emotion gripping many Americans as they watched the footage of the first attack on Afghanistan on Sunday night. In the tense days since September 11, citizens had wondered whether their country would have a chance to strike back at Osama bin Laden. Finally, they could see America taking action.

Nine out of 10 Americans say they back President George W. Bush. But the question is does this impulsive land of cowboys have the staying power to complete this war - one in which Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, says America has "no silver bullet"? Support at the outset of a war is valuable and suffices for short campaigns such as Desert Storm during the Gulf War. But it is no guarantee of public support several years on after the casualties have already come in.

Intervention in Indochina was hugely popular when it was first mooted in the early 1960s: only two senators dissented when the Senate voted to support action there in 1964. But over the course of the 1960s, the home front culture turned against the Vietnam war and eventually the US abandoned Saigon.

This war is not like Vietnam. But it has its own domestic challenges, some of which are already visible. The first concerns the Islamic community within the US. None of its members has spoken out in support of Mr bin Laden. They have either remained silent, or voiced tentative support for the bombing. Noera Ayaz, co-chairwoman of Columbia University law school's Muslim Student Association, told the New York Times on Monday that "Islam is against terrorism".

Such statements are welcome, but even more will be required from those who have direct knowledge that could help in the fight against terrorism. Dismaying as it may be to acknowledge, cells of Mr bin Laden's soldiers may still be secreted in domestic communities in the US and Canada. These "sleepers" may still be in a position to surface and act. In such circumstances, all Americans must be prepared to provide the necessary intelligence to US authorities to ferret out Mr bin Laden's allies.

Asking any group to turn on its fellows and declare "America First" is a daunting challenge. It goes directly against the US culture of tolerance. It opens the nation to charges of jingoism and bigotry. It divides family and friend, and damages workplace comity. But if President Bush is to achieve his objectives, the alternative - sublimating knowledge of others' support for terrorism - is no longer possible.

What if a few groups, however isolated, do nurture and hide terrorists? Then the US must have the strength to act, through police work, and, if necessary, arrest and deportation. This is the second big challenge - one for American culture generally and especially American legal culture. Every US schoolchild, after all, has been taught about the excesses of past domestic crackdowns.

Education about the communist threat of the 1950s has been more about Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist hearings than about the efforts at espionage on the home front. Pupils have also learned about the rough detention of Japanese Americans in camps on the west coast for the duration of the second world war. They have absorbed a view that is the luxury of peacetime: that the continued expansion of civil rights trumps everything.

This, alas, is not always so. Civil rights do not trump survival. And for the US to survive as we have known it - as a free state with the strongest of civil rights - it must have the support of its population in its focus against terror. Sandra Day O'Connor, the Supreme Court justice, was correct when she said: "We're likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in this country." This does not mean that the US should break its own laws or engage in wrong-headed excesses of the past. But it should feel the freedom to enforce laws and change them if necessary.

A third and related challenge is that of cultural relativism. Americans are also taught in school that while Afghan jurisprudence may be different from US jurisprudence, it is just as valid. They learn that it is unfair and low to denigrate others' cultures. This is why the Taliban offer to try Mr bin Laden in Afghanistan was a clever one - and one that probably appealed to some US citizens as a quick and painless solution. Such relativism, too, has to be overcome. The two sides in this battle are not equivalent. One of them is, as Tony Blair says, morally right. The other is wrong.

The last great challenge is more directly political. It is from groups, mostly on the left, that have viscerally opposed any military intervention since Vietnam or - even earlier - Korea. Since 1989, these groups have made humanitarianism and conciliation their rallying cry, arguing that the principal US role abroad is to do things such as make food drops of the sort that were launched on Sunday night. They opposed the embargo against Iraq; they opposed a hard line against Syria, which has supported terror; and they have encouraged US administrations to overlook support for terror within Egypt and Israel's occupied territories.

By doing so, by teaching the world that the US will look away, they have helped to strengthen Mr bin Laden. This matter will come to a head when the current battle extends - as President Bush said on Sunday that it will - to any government that sponsors "the outlaws and killers of innocents". If America is to succeed, it must no longer answer terror with conciliation.

In other words, the US must now undergo an enormous reworking of priorities. International matters must supplant domestic ones, at least for a time. It is a change that involves real sacrifice in the quality of everyday lives. But the only way back to the old freedoms is through victory.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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