How Terrorism's Victims Became Perpetrators

Why is America in trouble? September 11 was a traumatic event that shook the nation to its core. But it would not have changed the course of history for the worse if President Bush had not responded as he did. Declaring war on terrorism was understandable, perhaps even appropriate, as a figure of speech. The problem is that President Bush meant it literally.

I believe there is a direct connection between this and the abuse of detainees by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. What happened at Abu Ghraib was not a case of a few bad apples, but a pattern tolerated and even encouraged by American authorities. For example, the Judge Advocate General Corps routinely observes military interrogations from behind a two-way mirror; that practice was discontinued in Afghanistan and Iraq. The International Red Cross and others started complaining about abuses as early as December 2002.

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It is easy to see how terrorism can lead to torture. Last summer, I took an informal poll at a meeting of Wall Street investors to find out whether they would condone the use of torture to prevent a terrorist attack. The consensus was that they hoped somebody would do it without their knowing about it.

Americans, sadly, are now victims who have turned into perpetrators. Indeed, since September 2001, the war on terror has claimed more innocent victims than those terrorist attacks. This fact is unrecognized at home because the victims of the war on terror are not Americans. But the rest of the world does not draw the same distinction, and world opinion has turned against America.

The Bush administration knew what it was doing when it declared war on terror and used that pretext for invading Iraq. Perhaps Bush did not personally recognize this, but Vice President Dick Cheney and a group of extremists concentrated in and around the Pentagon did. These people are guided by the belief that international relations are relations of power, not law. Because America is the most powerful nation on earth, it ought to use that power more assertively. They advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein even before Bush was elected and won him to their cause after September 11.

The invasion of Afghanistan could be justified on the grounds that the Taliban provided Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with a secure training ground. Invading Iraq could not be similarly justified. Nevertheless, the ideologues in the administration were determined to pursue it because, in the words of Paul Wolfowitz, "it was doable." President Bush managed to convince the nation that Saddam Hussein had some connection with the suicide bombers of September 11, and that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. When both claims proved false, he argued that America invaded Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people.

That claim was even more far-fetched. If America had really cared for the Iraqi people, more troops would have been sent to provide protection not only for the Ministry of Oil, but for museums and hospitals, too. Instead, Iraq was devastated by looting.

Now that America's position has become unsustainable, the Bush administration is handing over power to local militias in Falluja and elsewhere. This prepares the ground for religious and ethnic divisions and possible civil war à la Bosnia, rather than democracy.

I would love to pin the blame for all this on Bush and his team. But that would ignore that Bush was playing to a receptive audience. Indeed, after all that has happened, a majority of the US electorate continues to have confidence in Bush on national security matters. If this continues and Bush is reelected, Americans must ask the question: "What is wrong with us?"

America needs profound soul-searching. The terrorists seem to have hit upon a weak point in America's collective psyche. They have made Americans fearful and found a willing co-conspirator in the Bush administration. For reasons of its own, the Bush administration has found it advantageous to nurture the fear that September 11 engendered. By declaring war on terror, Bush united the country behind him.

But fear is a bad counselor. By succumbing to fear Americans are doing the terrorists' bidding: unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that may result in a permanent state of war. The war on terror need never end; because the terrorists are invisible, they will never disappear.

The war on terror polarizes the world. In battles for survival, whether in Yugoslavia or Israel, everyone sticks with his own tribe or nation, whether its policies are right or wrong. This is the state of mind that Bush sought to foster when he declared that those who are not "with us" are with the terrorists.

That attitude cannot be reconciled with an open society, a concept based on the recognition that nobody possesses ultimate truth. Might is not necessarily right. It is not enough to reject the Bush administration's policies; Americans must reaffirm the values and principles of an open society. The war on terror is an aberration. America must defend itself against terrorist attacks, but that cannot be allowed to become the overarching objective of its existence.

Today, no single country or combination of countries can stand up to American military might. The main threat to America's dominant position comes not from outside, but from within. If Americans fail to recognize that they may be wrong, they risk undermining the country's dominant position.

Being the most powerful nation gives America privileges, but it also imposes obligations. If Americans want to preserve their privileged position, they must not use it to dictate to the rest of the world, but for the well being of others. Indeed, many problems-maintaining peace, ensuring law and order, protecting the environment, reducing poverty, and fighting terrorism-require collective action. Americans cannot do anything they want, but little can be done without US leadership or active participation.

Instead of undermining and demeaning international institutions because they do not necessarily follow America's will, the US should strengthen and improve them. Instead of engaging in preemptive military actions, the US should pursue preventive actions of a constructive nature, creating a better balance between carrots and sticks in the prevailing world order.