Ten Years Later

T he attacks of September 11, 2001, impelled America to declare war against terrorism. Its unforeseen consequence may be a historic leap in the global spread of democracy and human rights.

There have been terrorists of many faiths and nationalities, but the overwhelming share of global terror has been perpetrated by Muslims. Public opinion polls have shown that substantial minorities in most Muslim countries endorse suicide bombings, support al-Qaeda, and/or admire Osama bin Laden. Many Muslim governments have sustained terrorist groups and even engaged directly in terror actions.

This barbarism has gone hand in hand with hatred of America. It has been said that we have backed repressive regimes in the Muslim world. That is true, but their repression was scarcely our fault: the regimes we did not back were far more repressive. Also, we were resented for supporting Israel, but this only begged the question of why much of the Muslim world, some 1.3 billion people, making up a majority in forty-eight countries, was so beside itself over the existence of a single Jewish state comprising a few million Jews.

The source of Muslim rage, as Bernard Lewis explained, was the sense of failure and weakness among the Muslims whose scripture tells them that they should be on top, never on bottom.

This rage has also gone hand in hand with tyranny, leading President Bush, on the heels of 9/11, to the insight that the war on terror must have a political side and its goal would be to shake up the Muslim Middle East by attempting to foment democracy within it. When the war in Iraq, which was to have been a democratic model for the region, faltered, and when Hamas triumphed in Palestinian elections and Muslim Brothers scored impressively in Egypt’s voting, the Bush administration backed off its democracy project, but not before a regional eruption of democratic aspirations caused the early months of 2005 to be labeled the “Arab spring.”

Six years later, we are experiencing the Arab spring come again, this time with much greater force and consequence. Perhaps the upheavals of 2011 would have come anyway, had there been no 2005, but it is hard to doubt that the first Arab spring sowed the seeds of the second. For example, the April 6 Movement, the Egyptian youth group that as much as any called forth the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, was an offshoot of Kefaya, the 2005 coalition that came together to deny Mubarak another term of office once American pressure had impelled him to put his tenure to a contested vote that year for the first time.

The irony is that while this ferment was being stirred by America’s response to 9/11, a thousand voices were raised at home and abroad warning that the war against terrorism—with Gitmo, rendition, NSA surveillance, and “enhanced interrogation techniques”—was itself an ominous threat to democracy and human rights. Such fears were not merely overblown, they rested on a dogged blindness to the historical record. What that record shows is that while war always entails infringements of rights—sometimes necessary, sometimes not—nonetheless, many or most of the great global landmarks in the advancement of human rights resulted from wars that America fought and won.

During the American war of independence, colonists who remained loyal to the British crown were subjected to legal disabilities imposed by colonial/state legislatures and the US Congress, as well as by hostile mobs. Yet, that war gave birth to the first modern democracy, the first state claiming the raison d’être of securing the rights of its citizens.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus and assumed other extraordinary powers, including the imposition of martial law on the state of Maryland. Generals Grant and Sherman committed what would today be called war crimes against Southern civilians. That war secured an end to slavery in the United States.

America’s belated entry into World War One prompted passage of the Espionage Act and then the “Sedition Act,” making it illegal to “oppose the cause of the United States.” Unlike the other wars discussed here, it is not clear from hindsight that World War One was worth fighting. However, the war did set one landmark in the global progress of human rights: it ended the era of empires in Europe, giving life to the principle of the self-determination of nations.
In World War Two, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were interned, and smaller numbers of Americans of German and Italian background suffered the abridgement of their freedom. Not only did that war liberate peoples from Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese militarism, it also brought to an end the colonial domination of Asian and African peoples.

The Cold War gave rise to McCarthyism and measures that constrained the rights of domestic Communists. It also led America to support various autocratic regimes abroad. But it brought an end to Soviet totalitarianism, liberated the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and accelerated a global tide of democratization.

Needless to say, war always exacts a fearful price in human suffering. And few wars have furthered human rights. Some have demolished them. A war’s impact on rights may depend on many factors, above all who wins. But America’s wars have, as often as not, resulted in great advances for the cause of human rights, greater than from all but a few non-martial events.

And the war on terrorism? It is already a boon to human rights in the defensive sense that World War Two and the Cold War were, that is, in thwarting forces that trampled rights underfoot. Had we not put the violent jihadists to rout, they might have stamped their rule on several Muslim societies, destroying the modest freedoms that existed, and they would have forced America and other Western societies to become more closed in the interest of self-protection. Now, in addition, we stand at the threshold of benefits of a positive kind. If the seedlings of democracy that have sprung up in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Syria, take hold, then the Arab and Muslim worlds will be transformed. And the day of universal democracy and observance of human rights will draw much closer.


Joshua Muravchik's next book, How the World Turned against Israel, comes out next year.

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