Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 29, 2009

Doublethinking About Terrorism

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

Today’s New York Times chronicles the American government’s quest for ever-more-intrusive airport security systems. The ostensible purpose is to thwart terrorists and wannabes like last week’s Nigerian “pants bomber.”

But what if the solution to terrorism is much simpler?

The fact is that Americans suffer from classic “doublethink” about terrorism.

Doublethink, a term coined in George Orwell’s novel 1984, is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time while ignoring the contradiction.

Even if they watch Fox News, most Americans know that their government bombs people and sponsors repressive regimes all over the world. At the same time, they believe that America just minds its own business in the world, never bothers anyone, and certainly doesn’t do anything to make people hate us and want to attack us.

As a result, they are completely baffled by acts of terrorism. They think that terrorists are irrationally hostile toward the United States and the Western way of life, and that nothing short of an impenetrable security system can stop them from attacking us.

And because there’s no such thing as an impenetrable security system, the result is a never-ending parade of more oppressive and intrusive security procedures. And more billions of taxpayer dollars wasted. And more freedom taken away (for our own good, as always).

The solution to terrorism is not to shovel more and more tax money into boondoggles such as the Transportation Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, nor to let the government wiretap everyone, nor to lock Americans into their houses and let them out only under police supervision.

The solution is to stop bombing wedding parties and to tell local dictators that they’re on their own.

Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Hear hear! Splendidly put. I think the United States could spend a lot less on defence and still be adequately defended — even with a quarter of its current military machine, an attack on it would still be suicidal. With the peace dividend, things like comprehensive socialized medicine could be easily budgeted, fulfilling the goal Harry Truman set but couldn’t achieve. The best thing of all is that the US would finally be again what it once was… a force for good and a positive example looked up to by other nations. Fewer things served to rehabilitate Britain’s reputation in the world as stepping down from the Empire.

    • Hi, LP —

      Thanks for the great comment!

      You’re right that the U.S. spends more on military forces and hardware than most of the rest of the world’s nations combined. The relevant point seems not to be what’s needed for legitimate defence of the U.S., but what’s needed to enrich and empower politicians and their friends in the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned almost 50 years ago. It would be nice to spend that money on positive things that enhance human life instead of aggression and oppression. Perhaps the Obama administration will move us a few inches that way, albeit at a glacial pace and with many compromises.

      As for Britain, that’s a sad story: After Britain gave up its empire, for which it should get humanitarian credit, successive prime ministers signed it up as lackey and legitimizer for the American empire. So it now gets all the blame of empire but very few of the benefits (such as they are).

  2. Hi, NS,

    You’re right about Britain. It’s very strange. A country where people went without work during the US Civil War because the South withheld cotton shipments to them, but still had (as U.S. Grant put it) “monster rallies” in favour of the Union’s stand against slavery… a country where popular opinion overturned their hero’s, Winston Churchill, stand on holding onto India because they could not stomach what was being done in their name… and yet, since at least Margaret Thatcher’s time, it’s also been a country that seems to have grown nostalgic for, if not the outright possession of empire, then at least the exercise of it. If not their own, then that of the breakaway son made good. If not the British Empire, then an (Anglo-)American Empire in which they play the central co-starring role.

    I would like to think the British, and most Western nations, are stalwart allies of the US and one another… that they can be counted upon to respond if one is invaded, but that their obvious strength and unity of purpose means that will never happen (so far, so good, since 1945). But I don’t think, and I think you’d agree, that being a dependable friend should equate to enabling aggression, and I think that’s where the “Freedom Fries” thing, re Iraq, was unfair. Honestly, I don’t even think we should be in Afghanistan, though standing on principle only a month after 9/11 was difficult (obviously).

    • Well put, LP.

      I didn’t know that about Britain during the U.S. “civil war.” It doesn’t surprise me. But I’ve actually read some of the letters written home by soldiers on both sides of the battlefield, and hardly anyone thought he was fighting over the issue of slavery. For the Confederates, it was about independence; for the Union soldiers, it was about preserving the Union. Slavery was a side-issue that was only later, retroactively, claimed to be the main justification for the war. The Roman slave Spartacus had a more common attitude: he wasn’t against slavery per se, it was just that he didn’t want to be a slave, himself. Only a minority of people are troubled by injustice that doesn’t affect them or their families.

      You make a good point about the costs of alliance. Loyalty is a tough thing. If a member of my family committed murder and asked for my help in escaping, I might very well help him. Hard to know for sure without facing the situation, which I hope I never do. But loyalty and justice can definitely come into conflict. Speaking of Afghanistan, if you haven’t read George Macdonald Fraser’s 1969 novel “Flashman,” about the British occupation of Afghanistan in the 19th century, you might check it out. It’s an entertaining read, all the more so because the events could be taken directly from our daily news reports today.

  3. With regard to the causes of the Civil War… I’ve heard that argument before, but it’s never really washed with me. Slavery was an issue even when the US Constitution was being written… it made a slave 3/5 of a human being for purposes of taxation and representation; it banned legislation on the slave trade until, if I recall correctly, 1818. Every free state that was added had to be balanced by a slave state; it was practically a formula. To say that the Civil War was simply about “independence” for the South is really to ignore the impetus for those 11 states taking so bold a step in the first place. People didn’t just wake up one morning and decide they’d had enough of being part of the United States, time to go… they took that step for a material reason. And that reason was that Southerners increasingly feared that slavery would be hemmed in, and the bulk of states, being free, would eventually take the lead established by Britain and France and dispense with slavery nationwide, denying them their “property”. Independence for the South was simply the means. The goal, the heart of the matter, was the preservation of the institution of slavery (as well, the attendant fear of the idea of millions of free blacks — this was clearly reflected in the Jim Crow and segregation laws that made their influence felt, to greater or lesser extents, clear across North America for generations).

    I won’t go so far as to say I believe most Northerners who put on the uniform, initially, really cared one way or the other about slavery. But it must have become clear to them by 1863 what they were really fighting about. Certainly it was clear outside the United States. Cultural sympathies among the upper classes in Britain were with the South, but the British government never moved to officially support the South because it would have meant tacit approval of slavery — something Parliament had finally dispensed with in 1833, nearly two generations earlier (not to mention war with the North). Openly siding with the South would have meant riots in Britain and a breach in the Empire — there’s no way British North Americans could have been compelled to muster troops to fight the North in favour of slavery; even with imperial neutrality, 60,000 Canadians still volunteered and fought for the North… and they had no real stake in the unity of the United States per se.

    Southerners in particular don’t like to admit the war had slavery as its instigation, and that’s understandable if not admirable, but it should be clear that the South forced the issue primarily on that basis, not on the basis of some abstract notion of independence. (Even the original War of Independence was, at its heart, simply a tax revolt writ large… eventually.)

    With regard to Afghanistan (I’ll have to look up that book), I’m stunned we all agreed invading the place was the answer to getting hold of a handful of terrorist masterminds. Not to mention we had ample evidence for just what a bad idea invading Afghanistan is… not only the British experience of the 19th century, but the Russian experience that most of us are old enough to remember! The West boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 in protest… twenty years later, it had been converted to a good idea. Ten years later, we still don’t have Osama bin Laden; we’ve merely avenged the deaths of 3000 innocent people with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other innocent people, no doubt endearing us endlessly to millions of Muslims…

    • In the 21st century, no one in the West will be found to apologize for slavery on moral grounds: that’s not at issue.

      However, as a matter of historical fact, slavery had been around for thousands of years and was only abolished fairly recently in developed Western countries. It still thrives in less-advanced parts of the world, if I may be permitted to refer to those areas in a politically incorrect but accurate way. It was only in the United States that its abolition involved bloodshed and destruction on an unprecedented scale. As you observed, it was abolished peacefully in Britain and elsewhere.

      Arguing about “the causes” of a war, in the abstract, is in my view a fruitless quest. We can infer what soldiers thought about the causes of the war from their letters. We can infer what Lincoln and Davis thought about the causes of the war from their papers and speeches. But to contend that we can identify “the causes” without reference to any individuals and their motivations strikes me as mistaken.

      I’ve already mentioned that the soldiers on both sides appeared to be fighting either for independence or for the Union. For Lincoln himself, the prime motivator appears to have been his belief in a strong central government allied with Northern industrial interests. The historical evidence suggests that Lincoln shared his contemporaries’ unjust view of Africans. He wanted to “repatriate” freed slaves to Africa because he didn’t believe they were compatible with a white European society. Obviously, we today do not share Lincoln’s view of Africans. Davis and the Confederate leaders, particularly Lee and Jackson, saw the prime cause of war as the Union’s invasion of their states. Slavery was also an issue, but appears to have been less important than tariffs that the Union government imposed to benefit Northern industrial states at the expense of the largely agrarian Southern states. I don’t think anyone contends that Confederate states seceded merely on the basis of “some abstract notion of independence.” As for “forcing the war,” if someone broke into your house and started shooting up the place, well, you might be inclined to force a war as well.

      As for Afghanistan, it is forgotten these days that the Afghan government offered to turn over bin Laden to the U.S. government after the 9/11 attacks. But there was one roadblock: the Afghan government wanted to see evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the attacks. The Bush-Cheney regime, which had previously decided to invade Afghanistan, refused to provide any evidence and simply demanded that the Afghan government comply with its demands. That guaranteed the Afghan government’s refusal to extradite and got the Bush-Cheney regime its justification for the invasion.

  4. I never seem to be able to get the Reply link to work… I always get a preemptive SNAP view of the blog. Ah, well. 🙂

    While I agree with you that “to contend that we can identify “the causes” without reference to any individuals and their motivations strikes me as mistaken”; we also have to keep in mind that people tend to couch their intentions with an eye to an audience. The Declaration of Independence, for example… it’s a set of fine words, consciously aimed at the world, espousing a wide range of principles that were probably not in the hearts of everyone technically fighting for them, and not necessarily opposed by the people who objected to the fission of the Empire. Really, it was a war about who gets to take whose money on what basis; the rest were collateral issues that sprang from that first point of contention.

    Southerners, then and now, with an eye to what a world already skeptical of the value of slavery even back then would think of their cause, naturally bound it up in the language of “states’ rights”. But to stop there is to fail to inquire into what that meant in a practical, gut-level, ready-to-fight-over-it way. In the abstract, southern states were fighting to defend what they saw as their ability to govern themselves locally without undue interference from either other states or the federal level of government; that’s the face they showed the world. In reality, the “right” they actually feared would be abridged was the right to own, sell, work, and transport slaves. That’s the “right” that put the blood in the otherwise bland issue of “states’ rights”. Also interesting is the question of just who “broke in”. Did the North “break in” by blithely insisting on its right to hold supposedly federal territory in places that were adamantly no longer beholden in their hearts to that federation… or did the South “break in” when they acted to recover parts of their own states held by outsiders? Who was justified? It’s not clear, even today… opinions could go either way. But on the matter of owning human beings…? Even then, the writing was on the wall.

    I’d agree with you that the overriding concern of most Northerners actually willing to fight at the outset was maintaining the union, though I’d be willing to bet there were many who were content to let the South go (and good riddance) until they fired on Fort Sumter and, as they say, sacred honour was then at stake; what happened next probably explains why Cuba hasn’t forced the issue with Guantanamo Bay. But I would contend that it was already clear that the North was increasingly hostile to slavery on the basis of humanitarian and economic reasons, and if that wasn’t clear to Northerners themselves, it certainly was to Southerners. It’s hard to imagine the United States preserving the institution of slavery into the 20th century, with the industrial North having the bulk of the population, and that must have been clear and worrisome in the South. I concede that the matters at stake in the US Civil War were varied; not everybody fought for or against the same things. But I don’t see how it’s possible to deny slavery as the first and enduring cause of the war (seeing as the South started it). Why else issue an Emancipation Proclamation? Why else the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments on the heels of Appomattox? If merely preserving the Union were the North’s only concern, that was accomplished without ending slavery; in fact, a more enduring peace might have been predicted at the time from such a conciliatory gesture as allowing it to continue as before. But it was clear to the combatants by at least 1863 that slavery had to be buried: it was the instigation for all the acts of Southern governments.

    It’s interesting to note the change in Lincoln’s statements over time; given that so much of what he said and thought is recorded, he’s our prime example. He went from being a man who, while opposing the expansion of slavery, was content to leave it alone where it was; who denied the social equality of blacks, and, yes, was prepared to help them leave the US en masse… to a man who saw their emancipation as an act of justice overriding the rights of Southern whites and the only means of stirring his people to the preservation of the country; a man who declared himself justly damned in time and eternity if he were to maintain slavery in the face of the blacks who had fought for the Union: clearly, in his mind, they have become human beings possessed of rights. Something changed. I have always felt that Lincoln’s transformation of thought and belief mirrored that of the North in general over the course of the war. It made people think.

    The armed struggle in the US to end slavery, whatever might have been in its champions’ hearts initially, is one of the modern glories of humanity in general and the United States in particular. There are few just wars, but this is one is stirring to something deep in our nature. How little it means if it is simply reduced to one part of some country insisting on the right of condominium with another; indeed, as an outsider, it’s hard to feel any sympathy at all for the Northern cause if that’s all it was (I would not fight and kill other human beings on the basis of the abstract principle of insisting Quebec maintain its federal relationship within Canada, for instance). But tell me that all the talk of “Southern independence” and “states’ rights” was really about maintaining the ability of some people to own, force labour from, and dispense with other human beings against their will, and you find the sympathies are the polar opposite. We don’t side with the North today because, retroactively, it accords to our opinions; on the contrary, the struggles and successes of the Union cause MADE our opinions. We are who we are today, all over the world, in part because of that struggle. However people, then or now, have chosen to wrap up the parcel, the meat in the middle will always be slavery. You will have a very hard time convincing me that people fought for four years over the principle of tariffs prejudicial to price of tobacco and sorghum, or that the war has the stirring drive it has for mankind because Northern industry’s exports were favoured.

  5. Oddly enough, I’m one of the people who does remember those efforts, and the Afghans asking for the evidence. I can remember arguing with my dad, during a visit at the outset of the war, over the alternatives; the matter of international due process and how we were aiding and abetting an act of imperialism and arrogance that would set a precedent we ourselves might one day be unhappy to see applied closer to home (who knows?). I argued then that the proper thing to do was to present the evidence, get the buy-in of the Afghan government, and with their help, have UN troops comb the place for the men responsible. I think we’d have them by now if we’d done that; thousands who are dead would still be alive; and terrorists the world over would know the nations of the world were united in opposing their means. What we did achieved none of that. 😦

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