Put up or shut up
One of the most disturbing side effects of the horrific bombings in Madrid in early March was the vitriol levelled against their democratic consequences. Events of the last week showed a different concern for democracy as NATO expanded to great fanfare with President Bush's call for new members to be "free and democratic and fully committed to defending the principles of liberty." Colin Powell added that those joining have shown, "through a rigorous process of political, economic and military reform that you embrace the shared principles that are at the very heart of our great alliance."
But before moving on to join the chorus heralding reform and democratic ideals that marked the end of March, it's worth looking back at the lessons learned about democracy in the middle of last month and what they teach us about our precarious democratic future.
The Spanish vote
It's especially useful look at how the practice of democracy in the wake of the Spanish bombings was received in the Western press. Punishing the government for failing to protect the population and (in larger part) for blatantly lying about the perpetrators of the atrocity, Spanish voters reversed pre-election polls and sent the message to future leaders of the country that the political manipulation of body-bag filled auditoria is a disgusting opportunism that will not be tolerated.
The backlash against the Spanish vote was telling. The reactions which were especially instructive were those coming from voices based in the lands of the self-proclaimed bearers of justice and freedom, from opinion-makers in the Western coalition of the willing who consider it their mission to democratise the rest of the world. Rather than pick up on the palpable lack of trust in, and rage at, the tactics of the Popular Party, as other international press did, prominent commentators took the opportunity to show their contempt for democratic practice itself. To the New York Times' David Brooks, the Spanish decision was "inexcusable" and contrasted with the preferred American model: "If a terrorist group attacked the US three days before an election, does anyone doubt that the American electorate would rally behind the president or at least the most aggressively antiterror party?" Christopher Cox in the Wall Street Journal warned that the lesson is that "the population of entire nations" can "now be manipulated into voting for governments that disavow armed opposition to terrorism." Meanwhile, Brooks' colleague at the Times, Thomas Friedman, called the vote a "crazy" placating of "radical evil". To the Washington Times, Spanish "capitulation" to "murder" only "emboldens" terrorists. The word of choice, though, was the one used by so many, including the US Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who said the Spanish "chose to [..] in a sense, appease terrorists." Fellow Representative Henry Hyde called the vote "a great victory for al-Qaeda."
It's important to note that of course one can legitimately criticise a democratic outcome and remain committed to democratic practices. But what happened in this case was different. The junior partner's Daily Telegraph aptly typified the Western version of disgust for the actions of the Spanish: "Mr Zapatero is changing sides from Old to New Europe, shattering the war coalition in the process." Even he "can surely see that al-Qa'eda must be laughing at this unedifying spectacle."
As Freedland wrote in the Guardian the weekend after the election, "no word is invoked more often in support of the 'war on terror' than democracy. Yet these insults hurled at the Spanish show a sneaking contempt for the idea. For surely the Spanish did nothing more on Sunday than exercise their democratic right to change governments. They elected the Socialist party; to suggest they voted for al-Qaida is a slur not only on the Spanish nation but on the democratic process itself..."
That contemptuous comments are uttered by those who disagree with the Spanish decision should be no surprise. Yet the acuteness of the hypocrisy they illustrate should not pass without notice, especially when the crusading ideals necessary to fight for in one breath and mocked in the other might well be put to the test in the near future. That democracy is secondary to the demands of US foreign policy is not a benign academic observation. It's a looming and increasingly immediate problem for the practice of democracy at home.
The looming test
The reason such reactions to electoral practice should frighten those committed to the rights of democracy and due process, beyond the hypocrisy they shine on the Iraqi project, is because of the world that exists on the once-distant and now numbingly approximate horizon. The day is not far off when weapons of mass destruction will be combined with sophisticated nihilistic terrorist organizing with devastating consequences for the Western city of their choice. What will happen to democratic practices then, when marshal law is enacted and habeas corpus is suspended in the nightmarish fallout of a chemical or nuclear attack? How long will such suspensions of rights continue? And most disturbingly, in light of the reactions of the aftermath of Madrid's elections, who will care?
The self-anointed exporters of democracy will be caught in a contradiction in which their product, democracy, will no longer be available at home. The decaying of seemingly sacred rights of due process that Guantánamo detainees, the 1,200 post 9-11 arrestees, and the PATRIOT Act make painfully clear is already underway will be replaced by far less gradual measures under the banner of protection. The protection will not be from fantastic non-dangers like Saddam Hussein, but from a very real terrorist organisation whose crowning achievement will be on every television station across the globe.
How uncomfortable will opinion shapers and their terrified fellow citizens of the US and/or the UK be with the precisely anti-democratic measures taken to restore order and find the perpetrators? How resigned will we be when temporarily suspended rights are proposed to be permanently cancelled? How compelling or persuasive will the voice be of those who will continue to hold that transforming our societies into neo-fascist fortresses will still not do anything to address the root causes of terrorism?
The fact that this not a matter of if but of when is disturbing. The Madrid elections provide a preview of the calls for hard-line government assertions of power in the name of peacekeeping that will arise. The calls will come from the punditocracy who lashed out against the Spanish population plus a contingent of post-atrocity converts certain that the naivety of the liberal democracies constructed over the past centuries are inadequate safeguards against the threats of the 21st century. The choice will then be turned on the average citizens of those democracies. In essence, it will be put up or shut up time for democratic practice and due process in which people will have to ask themselves if demands for these things to be sacrificed will truly lead to a safer world.
The choice will have profound consequences. If those who balk at calls for government power reach a critical mass, movements will rise like those that arose against the war in Iraq on 15 February, 2003, and that were echoed this 20 March, movements that will hold the belief that long-term solutions to terrorism do not rely on cluster-bombs and indefinite detentions. If those willing to sacrifice in the name of security win out, the world will be transformed - and not temporarily. Through proliferation and outright occupation, too many seeds of terrorism have been sown to suspect that once-sacrosanct rights will be swiftly restored when the smoke clears.
Hypothesising about the likely aftermath of such an event in an interview last November, now retired US General and Gulf War I commander Tommy Franks said it would mean that "the Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we've seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy... It means the potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event somewhere in the Western world - it may be in the United States of America-- that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarise our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event."
Franks' comment may be alarming today, but on the day when such sentiments go from thought and private memo to speech and proposed policy, whether it offends our ear or not will be secondary. That the resonance and logic of this comment, and the wider idea that the world is too dangerous to be left up to control of the average citizen, will gain traction over the voices of dissent when such views are truly put to the test is not unlikely. Those who would like to make it unlikely -- who reject both the militarisation Franks predicts and the reflexive and "responsible" rallying around the President David Brooks prescribes above - should see Madrid's aftermath as a window into the future ideological battles ahead. It's not overdramatic to say that such a battle will between those who reject military hegemony on the one hand, and a hyper-armed America and its loyal allies without patience for the nostalgia of what we currently call democracy on the other.
For those contemplating where they might fall on such a choice, a uncomfortable but necessary question to ask in light of the Spanish election, and the pre-next 9 11 times in which we currently live, is what's the difference between belief in a fascism that demands allegiance to the state and utter contempt for democracy when it counters the wishes of the state? The answer: not much.