Sunday, May 22, 2011

Giving Up Our Values: Been There, Done That

I suppose one of the reasons I have so little patience with the argument that Islamic terrorism poses such an existential threat to us that our moral value are a luxury we just can't afford is that I am old enough to remember hearing such arguments before during the Cold War.

Granted, at least back then no one was arguing that we should torture. But we had plenty of allies who tortured, and we often abetted them and encouraged them. Any concern for freedom, democracy or human rights beyond our borders was dismissed as simply expendible in view of the emergency. Even within our borders, there had been revelations of shocking abuses by our government -- domestic spying, harassment of political opponents and the like. Plenty of people argued that the Russians had a hopeless advantage over us because they were not constrained by democracy and open government, that democratic accountability was an unsupportable burden, and, in short, that the only way to defeat the Soviets was to become as much like them as possible. To anyone who argued that if we became just like the Soviets, what was the point of beating them in the first place the answer was simply survival. We and the Russians had enough nuclear missiles pointed at each other to destroy each other many times over. With the stakes that high, maintaining our values and remaining free and democratic had to take second place to protecting our existence.

I remember those times and those arguments. As I listened, I hoped they were wrong and feared they were right. And then 1989 came along, Communism collapsed all across Eastern Europe, and doomsayers were proven gloriously wrong. The Soviet Union was unmasked as nothing but a Third World country with nuclear missiles. Its despotism and secrecy, far from being sources of strength, were continually undermining it. Our openness and accountability were not fatal weaknesses, but vital strengths. Arguments by many that the Soviets had a hopeless advantage in intelligence because they controlled the flow of information and we did not turned out to be false. In fact, the Soviets found our free flow of information baffling if not incomprehensible.

With freedom and openness so vindicated at the end of the Cold War, I had hoped such debate was at an end. But with the September 11 attack came the same arguments, often by the same people, that against such a ruthless and devious enemy, our freedom and values were a luxury we simply could not afford. Well guess what. The Soviet Union was a nation spreading from Leningrad to Vladivostok, with more people than the US and enough nuclear missiles to destroy us many time over. Al-Qaeda never had more than a few thousand members, hiding and sneaking around, with no more than small arms. It's late in the game to be saying this, I realize, but if we could survive the Cold War and keep freedom intact, we can do the same for the War on Terror. If enough nuclear missiles to destroy us many times over couldn't turn us into a dictatorship, then neither should terrorist with box cutters. Anyone who would argue that our values can't survive a challenge should read up on old Cold War literature making the exact same arguments -- and remember how it all turned out.

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