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Technology, Democracy and Terror


by Austin Bay
January 25, 2005

The Internet, jumbo jets and nerve gas are the hard facts behind the poetry of President Bush's "democracy on the offensive" Inaugural Address.

For a week, the chattering class has examined the ideological elements of Bush's future-shaping speech. There's general agreement that promoting democracy and declaring war on tyranny are deep, essential American values. However, critics from the decadent left and paleo-right fear the economic and political challenges implementing a global democracy project entails.

Perhaps they fail to realize that the United States is already a global democracy project, a huge political experiment in human freedom and creativity that cannot be confined to political borders -- and this is precisely why the Islamo-fascist imperialists behind Al Qaeda fear us. Bush's second inaugural recognizes that the strategic collision between Osama Bin Laden-type extremists and America pits "imperial restoration" against "liberating reform."

In 2001, bin Laden was promoting a "global caliphate." The Islamist terror bombers who committed mass murdered in Madrid intend to restore Spain (Al Andalus) to Islam. A week before Iraq's historic democratic elections, Al Qaeda commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared "fierce war on this evil principle of democracy." Zarqawi's rant clarifies the stakes. He knows the Iraqi vote pits democracy against his theo-fascist imperialism.

Idealism, however, isn't the sole spine of "the democracy strategy." The strategy seeks to address a very concrete issue: technological compression. Technological compression is a fact of 21st century existence -- and it is the superglue now bonding American foreign policy idealism (promoting democracy) and foreign policy pragmatism (survival via realpolitik).

An article of mine in The Weekly Standard's Jan. 3, 2005, issue frames it this way: "Technology has compressed the planet, with positive effects in communication, trade and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. Sept. 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers -- and the oceans were no obstacles. 'Technological compression' is a fact; it cannot be reversed. To deny it or ignore it has deadly consequences."

Translation: There is no "over there." Everybody lives next door. All local gossip can become international rumor in an instant. With weapons of mass destruction in the mix -- particularly if biological or nuclear weapons are employed -- a tribal war in Saudi Arabia or a border firefight in Asia can rapidly escalate to global disaster.

Sept. 11 made this case, with the deadly consequences a self-evident truth. Last week's scramble in Boston to stop a potential terror strike by a multinational team using a radiological bomb demonstrates at least some of us remember the lesson. The tip that sparked the FBI and police dragnet now looks specious -- thank goodness. The threat, however, is all too real.

Passive and reactive defenses are ultimately that -- passive and reactive. Domestic police surveillance, and strip searches at the airport and the bus station ... no matter how intensive and intrusive they become, a dedicated terrorist will slip them. If they slip them with a hand grenade, that's one level of tragedy; if they slip them with a nerve gas canister or a suitcase nuke, then the tragedy gets an exponent, with the death toll leaping from hundreds to millions.

We're not going to put the genies of modern transportation and globe-girdling communication back in their bottles. The Pandora's Box of mass destruction weaponry could conceivably be closed, with its chemical, nuclear and biological horrors returned and locked away, but that would require not only collaborative police work but the kind of mutual political trust only democracies exhibit.

Sept. 11 demonstrated that we cannot tolerate the wicked linkage of terrorists, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists plus rogue states plus weapons of mass destruction: That's the formula for hell in the 21st century. Rogue states are inevitably undemocratic, authoritarian states -- typically secular or religious tyrannies.

Given modern technology and the role tyrannical states play in facilitating or exporting terror, a democratic offensive against tyranny is realpolitik. The explicit American goal is to advance free states where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted.

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