Terrorism's Challenge to Democracy

Seven months after 9/11 the question that still seems to vex most Americans - tough media pundits and seasoned Washington hands no less than ordinary people in the streets -- is 'why do they hate us?' Friends and adversaries alike may protest 'we don't hate you, we just don't love you as much as you'd like to be loved.' And it is true, we Americans are delicate imperialists, sensitive warriors who want our goodwill to be affirmed even as we engage actively in what looks to others very much like global military and economic hegemony. But there is anger, enmity, even rage against America, and the question of "why?" obviously reflects the insecurities born of September 11. Why they hate us may help explain terrorism. Explain, not excuse. Here are four reasons, call them the four horsemen of hate (H's all) that suggest why we are not always loved: Hyper-power, hypocrisy, humiliation and homogenization.

1) Hyperpower: The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war seemed to signal an American success that brought an end to bipolarity and left America the only great power standing (this is what Francis Fukuyama meant by "the end of history"). But power entails responsibility. Americans argue persuasively that we did not create many of the problems from which the planet suffers and for which we are almost always blamed. Yet while that may be true, to be powerful brings responsibility even where no causality is to be attributed. We need to stop being coy about our power: it is real to others and has to be handled responsibly by us. We will never be loved for it, but can be respected and even admired if we use it responsibly, consistently and effectively to deal with the world's problems - whether they are of our own making or not.

2) Hypocrisy: Powerful nations are never liked; but powerful nations that act hypocritically and inconsistently are often detested. America sees itself (quite rightly) as a democratic nation born out of revolution and forged in its modern identity by the struggle for inclusion, equality and prosperity for all. Yet while it talks those values as it projects its power around the world, it more often acts on behalf of narrow national interests that are at best only remotely connected to its values. Its dual addiction to opium and oil, for example, often trump its commitment to democracy. Its quest for a secure business environment for its ubiquitous multinationals leads it to neglect the human rights and human welfare issues that mark its idealistic rhetoric.

Democracy and social justice cannot be sometime principles, trumped by some transient economic interest whenever they are found to be inconvenient. Either we stand by the principle of popular election and resist the overthrow of democratically elected individuals and parties we happen to dislike (the Islamic Party in Algeria ten years ago, President Chavez of Venezuela last week), or we surrender our right to be regarded and liked as a friend of democracy and electoral autonomy around the world. Either we support human rights even when such support undermines the autocratic governments we otherwise favor because they support American business interests (China) or they affect enmity to a terrorism that their regimes often have helped incite (Saudi Arabia, Egypt), or we will be regarded as hypocritical allies of tyranny. A very simple way for us to get people to stop hating us is to support in practice the democracy to which we subscribe in theory - or, minimally, to stop opposing and undermining those trying to practice it around the world.

3) Humiliation: there are myriad issues of economic injustice (the widening gap between rich and poor in global markets), exclusion (much of Africa is off the map when it comes to world trade) and exploitation (WTO and IMF policies often seem to privilege investors at the expense of local social agendas) that spur anger and resentment. But for many around the world who hope to participate in America's bounty, poverty has been more an engine of striving than a cause of resentment (India and Bangladesh for example). It is not America's wealth and power per se that excite fury but the humiliation which the arrogant deployment of those resources has sometimes inflicted. In the Muslim world, humiliation has become a way of life, associated with a long history of Western arrogance that goes all the way back to the Crusades. In modern times, it can be traced from the failure of Britain and its allies to live up to their pledge to give their Arab partners in the World War I campaign against the Ottomans the independence promised them after the war. It continues right down to the rejection by France and others of the Islamic victory in the 1992 Algerian elections and to the recent rhetoric of a clash of civilizations (Samuel Huntington) in which Islam plays the heavy. Oddly, words and symbolic politics can be more humiliating than deeds. Calling Sharon "a man of peace" at a moment when his forces have been dismantling the Palestinian Authority's civic infrastructure and (inadvertently but decisively) killing civilians on its way to trying to root out terrorists may be more incendiary than Israel's self-defense actions themselves. Tolerating the incarceration and humiliation of Arafat may be more infuriating to Palestinians than condemning the suicide bombers or suggesting that he condones terrorism. Like liberty, dignity is often prized above life - something the American heirs of Patrick Henry ought to understand. The suicide bombers - call them martyrs or call them terrorists - speak consistently of humiliation as a driving force in their rage against not just Israel but America. It does not condone terrorism to understand that we must address humiliation. In World War One, Germany was humiliated: the Nazis and World War II followed. After World War II, Germany was rebuilt economically and politically. A democratic Europe ensued.

4) Homogenization. The people of the third world, among them, the people of Islam, have two great fears: the first is that their children will be excluded from modernity -- left out of the new global network of trade and goods and cultural commodities that define modern prosperity and create the conditions for democracy; the second is that their children will be included in modernity, corrupted by the very prosperity of which they dream. Ambivalence runs deep here. For economic success in America's terms may buy opportunity and prosperity at the cost of indigenous moral, cultural and religious values. Liberation from want can become slavery to the materialism that makes liberation possible. The hunger for profit can undo the hunger for meaning. Exchanging the dogmatism of a monolithic theocracy for the dogmatism of a monolithic consumerism may not impress everyone as progress. There must be more to choose from than reactionary mullahs or ubiquitous malls.

One McDonalds in a third world society may introduce cuisinary diversity and a dozen may mean new economic opportunity, but a thousand will begin to feel like radical homogenization and the extinction of all cultural differences. American films and television programs enrich the global entertainment fare -- until there are only American films and television programs around the globe. When does a fair market share become a cultural monopoly that diminishes rather than increases diversity? When do aggressively marketed materialist commodities inflected with sex and violence (commodified values) imperil religious and cultural values? Check out the multiplex, the internet and the mall, and you will discover a radical materialist ideology in which profit and hedonism are the chief values and in which private consumer choice masquerades as 'liberty.' You will find consumers who think that spending their dollars and Euros and yen is the same thing as citizenship. Farewell traditional culture. But farewell, too, democracy.

One need not travel abroad to discover this ambivalence. There are two million American fundamentalist Christian families who, appalled by the materialist values purveyed in the private market place that is public schooling, school their kids at home. After all, the theme-park is no less an educator than the mosque, and kids the world over learn values more easily from MTV and multiplex big screens than they do from their teachers and their priests. Hence it should come as no surprise that those who love our culture and our commodities also hate our culture and our commodities. They want to be us and they fear the costs of being us. Their ambivalence is not incoherent, it mirrors our own attitudes towards materialism and our profit obsessed society.

The four H's suggest their own remedies. America's global power must be tempered by a commitment to democracy, for democracy means sharing our power and facilitating the empowerment of others. Nor can democracy be served by hypocrisy, which serves to turn potential citizens into cynics and potential friends into enraged adversaries; it requires respect and a reciprocity of recognition that alone can bring an end to humiliation; and since empowerment is the clearest remedy to humiliation -- which is but the flaunting of an enemy's powerlessness -- this again means more democracy. It also means diversity and hence a willingness to limit the compass of global materialism by leaving space for civil society, indigenous cultures and traditional religion, for democracy is not a philosophy of consensus but a recipe for pluralism.

Finally it ought not to be so hard even for a hyper-powerful America to moderate the rage with which its power will inevitably be greeted by those affected by it. For if we project abroad the appetite for liberty and justice which, along side the appetite for goods and profits, has marked our own history; if we purse on behalf of others the multicultural diversity and inclusion that has been our own civic faith; if we make democracy and justice the keystones of a foreign policy which by definition must then be focused on interdependence and driven by multilateralism, we will to be sure have to share our power. But on the way to doing that we will be allowed to share the heavy responsibilities of leadership and to help others enjoy the blessings of liberty. By joining the world rather than insisting that the world join us, we will benefit the world immeasurably -- but benefit America still more.