Oct 1 1998

Terrorists Hate Democracy, Law, Apple Pie

A common theme in media analysis about terrorism is that the U.S. has been specially targeted because of its support for democracy and other lofty principles. The Chicago Tribune‘s R.C. Longworth, for example, made this observation on August 30:

Most Americans see their nation and its ideals as benign and positive, and they assume that these ideals–democracy, a free economy, consumerism, untrammeled communications, tolerance, equality between the sexes–can only benefit the rest of the world…. It’s a shock to learn that not everyone wants to become just like us.

Longworth used Nairobi bombing suspect Osama bin Laden as his prime example of those fighting against these American ideals.

It’s worth remembering bin Laden’s primary grievance against the United States, at least according to media profiles, is its political and military support for the government of Saudi Arabia–which is, of course, not a democracy but a dictatorship. And surely, while bin Laden is no fan of democracy, no one thinks that his complaint about U.S. support for Israel is that Israel has tried to force the Palestinians to take part in elections.

We see the same self-congratulatory analysis of terrorism in a September 7 U.S. News & World Report column written by the magazine’s owner and “editor-in-chief,” Mort Zuckerman: “We cherish our country as a democracy dedicated to the rule of law, religious and political freedom, economic opportunity and respect for the individual…. Osama bin Laden and his zealots furiously resent this.” It’s ironic that Zuckerman cites American respect for the rule of law as the first of bin Laden’s gripes against the U.S., when the U.S. had just launched cruise missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan.

In the case of Sudan, even the most tenuous claim that the U.S. bombing was in accord with international law was unraveling by the time Zuckerman’s article hit the newsstands: While it was initially claimed that the U.S. had concrete evidence that the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory was going to be involved in an imminent attack against the U.S., the State Department later admitted that they didn’t even know who owned the factory or what it manufactured (New York Times, 8/29/98, 9/3/98). Although little mentioned in U.S. media, international law says that a country may another in self-defense only against an attack that is “imminent and overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment of deliberation.”

Perhaps Zuckerman should welcome the revelation that the U.S. legal justification for the bombing was a mere pretext: Maybe now bin Laden and all those other rule-of-law haters will redirect their anger toward some other country, say, Sweden.