Reexamining the Terrorist Threat as Against Civil Rights

Terrorism is not new. It was an important factor in nineteenth-century Russia, and it had a great influence in shaping the character of the czarist regime, enhancing the importance of the secret police and justifying authoritarian rule. More recently, several European countries – Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, and the United Kingdom – have had to contend with terrorist gangs. It took each of them a decade or more to root them out, but they did not live in thrall of terrorism during all that time.

Using hijacked planes for suicide attacks is something new, and so is the potential for the terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction. There is clear evidence that al Qaeda was experimenting with chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan, and we must take the threat seriously. Suicide bombers using hijacked airplanes took us unawares; we cannot let that happen with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. To come to terms with these threats will require serious attention, but we cannot let them dominate our existence. (Wintour, 2002).

It is high time to reconsider the war on terrorism. By allowing terrorism to become our principal preoccupation, we are playing straight into the terrorists’ hands: They – and not us – are setting our priorities. September 11 needs to be put into the proper perspective. The loss of three thousand innocent lives is an enormous human tragedy, but it does not endanger our existence as a nation. To elevate the threat posed by al Qaeda to the level represented by nuclear was is a wild exaggeration that can be sustained only by cultivating a link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

The expression weapons of mass destruction is itself a misnomer: Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons have little in common. * As of now, chemical and biological weapons do not approach nuclear weapons in destructive power, although they do hold the menace of the unknown. They are also more easily accessible. We know that al Qaeda was experimenting with chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein actually used poison gas his own people in 1975. (Wintour, 2002).

But terrorist groups cannot marshal the same resources as state-sponsored weapons programs can, and there is no evidence of any link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. It is highly unlikely that Saddam’s Iraq would have dared to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction because of the repercussions: it is easier to find Iraq than the terrorists. The occurrence of an anthrax attack immediately following September 11, with anthrax of a high quality that only the U. S.

weapons program was capable of producing, remains a strange and still unexplained incident, but undoubtedly it contributed to the myth that links weapons of mass destruction with terrorism. The anthrax attack had few victims; a portable nuclear bomb would have many more. (Unfolding Freedom in Challenging Times). Exaggerating these threats only makes them worse. Yet that is exactly what the Bush administration is doing. When John Ashcroft accused a scruffy dropout named Jose Padillo of a plot to release a radioactive “dirty bomb,” the attorney general achieved the same result as a terrorist perpetuating such a scheme: he fostered fear.

Fear can be a useful tool in the hands of a government intent on exploiting it: It unites people against a common enemy. Communism used to serve as the enemy; now terrorism can fill the role. The appeal to patriotism can also be used to silence the critics. We seem to have come a long way from the time when President Roosevelt reminded the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. ” The important thing to remember about terrorism is its impact and developments are precisely dependent on the actions and reactions of the victims.

If the victims react by turning into perpetrators, terrorism triumphs in the sense of engendering a vicious cycle of escalating violence. That is what the fanatically militant Islamists who perpetrated September 11 must have hoped to achieve. A Different Vision for America The most powerful country on earth cannot afford to be consumed by fear. It also cannot vent that fear on the curtailment of human rights for people. To make the war on terrorism the centerpiece of our national strategy is an abdication of our responsibility as the leading nation in the world.

The United States is the only country that can take the lead in addressing problems that require collective action: preserving peace, assuring economic progress, protecting the environment, and so on. Fighting terrorism and controlling weapons of mass destruction also fall into this category. The United States cannot do whatever it wants, but nothing much can be done in the way of international cooperation without the leadership or a least active participation of our nation.

The United States has a greater degree of discretion in deciding what shape the world should take than anybody else. Other countries have responded to U. S. policy, but we can choose the policy to which others have to respond. This imposes a unique responsibility on the United States: Our nation must concern itself with the well-being of the world and the rights of each and every person.


  • Arab, Muslim Groups Sue INS< Ashcroft Over Detentions. Retrieved April 18, 2007 at: Dec. 25, 2002 issue.