Fighting the Urge to Overreact

Future Foreign Policy

Obama 911

Obama at 9/11 Memorial Service 2014 – DefenseImagery via Wikimedia Commons


Last night, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama laid out the justification for American military action against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation.

At least in part, his address to the nation was based on the the terrible images of IS fanatics beheading American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, which spread around the world like wildfire in recent weeks. The sickening pictures prompted vigorous online debates about the most appropriate response to their transmission: to view or not to view? In viewing the videos, radical Islamists were finding a captive audience for their message of hate. But by not viewing the videos, Westerners were refusing to fully acknowledge the violent extremism in their midst.

Not surprisingly, the beheadings also prompted anguished navel-gazing among Western leaders, who yet again were forced to confront the not-insignificant question of how to best respond to radical Islam. Unfortunately, so far most of the answers have been of the fear-mongering variety. The United Kingdom is threatening to strip suspected jihadists of their passports; the White House has concluded that while there is no ‘imminent danger‘ to the US homeland, foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria could pose a significant ‘threat’ to American interests both home and abroad.

Such sentiments by political leaders are not entirely without foundation. In the not-too-distant past, both the US and UK have been victims of terrorist attacks by those professing to adhere to an extreme interpretation of Islam. Neither country has yet found an effective response to the culture clash being foisted upon them against their will. But there is a real danger that the governments in these and other Western nations will use the menace posed by the Islamic State to further erode civil liberties and democratic values, somehow discounting the fact that the last decade of scare tactics and hysteria hasn’t made their countries any safer.

We’ve been here before. Guantanamo Bay prison camp–festering like an open wound off the coast of Florida–is a visceral reminder of what happens when the panicked need to ‘do something’ overtakes common sense. But the West’s collective impulse to instinctively overreact in the face of an apparent existential threat first manifested decades before Osama Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks. Back then, the common enemy was Communism.

The Cold War was used to rationalise a multitude of sins, not least among them nuclear proliferation. But successive administrations in the United States also used it to justify political witch hunts, dodgy deals with discredited authorities, and proxy wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America–all in the name of ‘fighting Communism’. Untold human rights abuses were perpetuated by dictators allied with the United States, who turned a blind eye to their injustices, so long as they promised to affiliate themselves with Washington instead of Moscow. As late as the 1980s, the US government was still formally allied with the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of the suspected ‘communist’ leanings of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. Mandela himself was on a ‘terrorist watchlist’ until 2008, in what is surely one of America’s more embarrassing administrative oversights.

There is zero indication that any of the IS leadership has Mandela-like ambitions for peace, reconciliation and racial harmony. Very much the opposite, in fact–they have pledged to overrun and subjugate everyone who is not ‘believer’, whatever that means in their twisted notions of the Muslim faith. This unquestionably includes Americans and their allies. But cooler heads need to prevail in the War Room–because when the United States overreacts and ignores its own stated ideals in the fight against extremist political views, it gives everyone else a free pass to do so as well. Plenty of undemocratic governments are looking for any acceptable excuse to infringe the rights of their people, and ‘anti-terrorism’ laws are very attractive in this regard.

In his speech last night, the President stated that the United States had a ‘responsibility to lead’, and that the values of freedom, justice, and dignity underpin American leadership in an uncertain world. Adherence to these principles has been found wanting in recent years; let’s hope that policymakers remember them while they search for a comprehensive response to the Islamic State’s provocations.

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