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Dealing With Terrorism

Guest Column
Khoon Tee Tan

Perhaps the most lasting impact that the tragic events of Sept. 11 will have on the American psyche is the view on freedom and security. In a most mortifying way, the American people have been reawakened to a long debate between the importance of freedom and the need for security. It is necessary to devote some attention to the ramifications on American foreign policy. It is clear that a trade-off needs to be made between security and freedom in order to deal with terrorism. But there is also a need to re-examine American foreign policy and its consequences on the rest of the world.

The political climate of the Cold War era was marked with moralistic rhetoric from the democratic West, extolling the virtues of freedom and human rights to justify the need to meet the Communist threat. The USSR has evaporated, but the trend of speech has continued to this very day. So embedded is this world view, that it is hardly surprising that when any threat to America emerges, it is assumed and propagated through the mass media that it could only come from those who hate America for the values that it stands for: freedom, democracy and peace. This simplistic view is problematic and dangerous, for the view from the so-called “Arab street” and indeed many a street could not be more different and ironic. Asked to describe America in one word, a Zogby International poll in Lebanon shows that 30 percent of participants described America as a “terrorist,” and more than 20 percent each used the terms “superpower” and “oppressive” [The Economist, Feb. 23]. This is suggestive either of extreme disillusionment with the reality of American benevolence, or that something is indeed wrong with American foreign policy itself.

The negative views emerging from such polls are recognized by the Bush administration. The response so far seems to hinge on the belief that such views are misguided. That is why a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, has been appointed undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs -- the chief American propagandist to the rest of the world. Already, criticism of such an approach has emerged: surely, America can’t be naÏve enough to think that it can reverse any negative image it has overseas by flooding the world with Time, Newsweek and CNN? Such critics have a point.

But if not more propaganda, then what? The answer, sure enough, lies in the realm of foreign policy. It is true that the American interest abroad is best served through the freedoms of others. But all too often, the execution of American foreign policy reduces these freedoms. Failure to acknowledge this foreign policy conundrum does not bode well for the future; for this reason, the war on terrorism is likely to continue into the distant future. But if on the foreign policy front little has changed, save for the creation of the global coalition against terror, the aftermath of Sept. 11 has also witnessed a departure from the usual political correctness of not interfering with the free press. More significantly, the public seems to have acquiesced to the need to make some “sacrifices” for the greater good, a clear sign of a sea change in attitudes towards freedom and security. The Bush administration’s pressure on the American mass media and on the Qatari news agency al-Jazeera to control their coverage of the Osama bin Laden videos errs on the side of security. Inflammatory rhetoric may have a right to be propagated, but if the results are more violence and destruction, there is a need to place some safeguards on the arguably more important freedoms of people, including the right to be free from harm.

While the freedom of Americans has not and will not be seriously challenged by the events of Sept. 11, winning over the rest of the world will take more than sheer propaganda. In an increasingly globalized world, the nations of the world have no choice but to interact with each other for reasons economic or political. This calls for a foreign policy that creates trust by matching words with action, promoting global peace and freedom through deterrence, prevention and conflict resolution. With the lives of so many at stake, it is a moral duty for the people of a superpower nation to make themselves aware of the policies and doings of their government, at home and abroad, and the consequences of these actions. For the quality of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” shall rest on the people.

Khoon Tee Tan is a CMI Exchange Student from Pembroke College, Cambridge.