The chronic guilt that defines modern liberalism makes liberal politicians fundamentally unable to deal with terrorists.
FOR American liberals, Thomas Jefferson is the cultural hero par excellence, cherished for his positions on freedom of expression and on separation of Church and State and for his populistic rhetoric. (That this was a populism for whites only is a fact which American liberals have managed not to address.)
Of course Jefferson is a hero to many Americans apart from liberals, and his admirers include, as we now know, some white right-wing terrorists. On July 3, 1995, the Washington Post published Serge Kovaleski's profile of Terry Lynn Nichols, the second man charged in the Oklahoma City bombing. According to Kovaleski, Nichols read the works of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and was particularly inspired by Jefferson's maxim, ``The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.''
According to CNN News (January 31, 1996), the first suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was wearing a T-shirt carrying those same words at the time he was arrested while driving away from Oklahoma City. The CNN correspondent, Susan Candiotti, put a question about the T-shirt to McVeigh's lawyer, Stephen Jones. Jones replied: ``Well, if Thomas Jefferson said it, I don't think it would be incriminating at all.''
Jefferson did say it. He wrote those words in a letter to William Stevens Smith on November 13, 1787. Jefferson was writing from Paris, where he was Minister Plenipotentiary at the time, but the words do not imply any premonition of impending revolution in France. They are used in justification of Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts. In the letter to Smith, the words, ``It is its natural manure,'' appear after ``blood of patriots and tyrants.''
Jefferson did not have the French Revolution in mind when he wrote those words. But as soon as that revolution began he wrote about it in the ``tree of liberty'' spirit, and set virtually no limits to the amount of blood the French Revolutionaries might legitimately shed in the cause of liberty -- ``Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.'' So Jefferson wrote in January 1793 after the news of the September massacres in Paris had reached America.
The concept of the bloodthirsty tree of liberty entered into the rhetoric of the French Revolution itself and specifically into the rhetoric of the Revolutionary Terror. The terrorist Bertrand Barcre used a variant of it in the peroration of his speech calling for the execution of Louis XVI: ``The tree of liberty, as an ancient author remarks, flourishes when it is watered with the blood of all varieties of tyrants.'' Macaulay, whose knowledge of classical literature was prodigious, did not believe in the existence of Barcre's ``ancient author'': ``In the course of our own small reading among the Greek and Latin writers, we have not happened to fall in with trees of liberty and watering-pots full of blood, nor can we, such is our ignorance of classical ambiguity, even imagine an Attic or Roman orator employing imagery of that sort'' (Edinburgh Review, April 1844).
We know (as Macaulay probably did not) that Thomas Jefferson had ``employed imagery of that sort'' five years before Barcre did and in the same city. Could the idea have reached Barcre from Jefferson? Conceivably. Barcre could not have known of Jefferson's letter of five years before to an American correspondent. But Jefferson had been in Paris for the Fall of the Bastille, which was accompanied and followed by a number of bloody episodes. Jefferson's dispatches and letters of the period reflect a sober appreciation of the efficiency of mob violence in a revolutionary situation. ``The decapitation of de Launay worked powerfully thro' the night on the whole aristocratical party [so that they realized] the absolute necessity that the king should give up everything to the States [General].'' Some of Jefferson's acquaintances in Paris (who mostly belonged, like La Rochefoucauld and Condorcet, to the Enlightenment section of the nobility) may well have been shocked by the bloodshed, and have said so to Jefferson. If so, he could well have comforted them with some version of the thought about the tree of liberty and its natural manure. The story could then have gone the rounds and eventually reached the ears which were most likely to be attracted by the characteristics of that tree.
In any case, the bloodthirsty tree remains part of the revolutionary and terrorist traditions in the twentieth century. In ``The Rose Tree'' -- the most ``revolutionary'' of the four poems W. B. Yeats wrote about the Easter Rising of 1916 -- the last stanza runs:
``But where can we draw water,''
Said Pearse to Connolly,
``When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There's nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.''
Yeats was probably not aware of the Jeffersonian origins of his metaphor. But I have heard the Jeffersonian passage about the tree correctly quoted, and properly attributed, by people who were interested in legitimizing the terror offensive of the Provisional IRA, which began in 1971, was suspended in 1994, and again resumed in February of this year.
LIBERALISM and terrorism appear as opposing concepts. But they have something in common. Both belong to the large and heterogeneous family of the devotees of freedom. Freedom is the most powerful and the most ambiguous of abstract ideas. There are two main divisions within the massive ambiguities. There is freedom combined with order and limited by law. This is the freedom of England's Glorious Revolution and of the American Constitution. This is the ``manly, moral, regulated liberty'' which Burke defended in Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is the freedom of the mainstream liberal tradition in the English-speaking world. And it is also the freedom of the mainstream conservative tradition in the same world. In their philosophy of freedom, the common ground between the two traditions is more important than the differences. Edmund Burke belongs to both those traditions, and no one should seek to wrest him from one of them in order to monopolize him for the other.
Outside the zone of ordered freedom, now more or less coextensive with the Western world, the idea of freedom and the love of freedom take starker and more elemental forms. Freedom is thought of as the appurtenance and rightful heritage of a particular group of people defined by nationality, religion, language, ancestry, or territorial affiliation, and usually by some combination of several of these elements. Some other group or groups of people are felt to be denying freedom to us, who must have it. Freedom so understood is one of the most powerful of human motivating forces and the most destructive, impelling large numbers of people to risk their lives for it and to take the lives of others, the enemies of freedom. Serbs and Croats cut one another's throats, and all for freedom's sake.
When the Communist system collapsed in Europe, many Westerners were confident that freedom would take its place, and so it did. But in many parts of the former Soviet Union, the freedom that emerged was not freedom as understood in the West, but rather a conflict of freedoms: national and ethnic freedoms, at war with one another. Russians are making a brave effort to establish an ordered version of freedom, but that version is challenged by other versions.
Much of the world today breathes what Edmund Burke called ``the wild gas'' of liberty. Burke used that phrase about the French Revolution in the condition it was in in 1790, a year after the Fall of the Bastille, and two years before the advent of the Terror. The Whigs -- the ancestors of modern liberals -- believed that the French Revolution was over, having brought about the triumph of liberty. Burke was about to break with the Whigs, over that proposition. He wrote in Reflections:
``When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose; but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subdued, till the liquor is cleared and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing that they have really received one. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too, and, without them, liberty is not a benefit in itself, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please. We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.''
I REFERRED just now to the contrast between ``ordered liberty'' in the West, and passionate versions of liberty in the world outside. The contrast is obvious, but it is not clear cut. Within the West also there are passionate absolutist libertarians claiming inspiration from within the Western tradition, as in the cases of the persons arrested for the Oklahoma City bombing. And Western liberals are ill-prepared to cope with terrorism. This is a question of psychology, not of formal liberal doctrine. In the British tradition that doctrine was formulated most authoritatively by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill wrote: ``The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.'' The doctrine of ``self-protection'' would seem to authorize democratic societies to take such measures as may be necessary to defend the citizens against terrorist conspiracies, without defection from liberal principles. If the ordinary courts, and the ordinary criminal laws, are inadequate to protect the citizens from terrorism, then a liberal of the school of Mill could legislate, without a qualm of principle, for the introduction of internment without trial of persons whom the security authorities believe to be terrorists.
John Stuart Mill is the leading British liberal thinker. But a figure more representative of the British liberal tradition is the great liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone. And Gladstone is the classic embodiment of the weakness of the English liberal mind in trying to cope with terrorism. Gladstone admitted that his whole attitude to Ireland was changed overnight by a single Irish terrorist act: the Fenian bombing of Clerkenwell Prison in 1867. That bomb convinced Gladstone that the Irish must be suffering from terrible grievances, which it was his duty to remove. ``My mission is to pacify Ireland,'' he declared. He tried to do this by a series of reforms, beginning with the disestablishment of the Irish (Anglican) Church in 1870.
The Irish terrorists were not interested in matters like Church disestablishment. But they were very interested in the effect which their Clerkenwell bomb had had on the mind of the leading British politician of the day. What Gladstone's reaction to that bomb taught them was that terrorism works. And that lesson is the most enduring legacy of Gladstonian liberalism. ``Violence is the only thing the British understand'' is the favorite maxim of Irish Republicans even today. Canary Wharf in 1996 is heir to Clerkenwell in 1867.
At the level of logic, the liberal mind is in the grip of a fallacy: that terrorism can be rooted out by concessions and compromise, without any need to resort to inconvenient and painful emergency measures, like internment. This is a fallacy, because the terrorist mind is absolutist and unappeasable. Irish terrorists want to destroy Northern Ireland, and will not voluntarily stop anywhere short of that. Arab terrorists want to destroy Israel, and will not voluntarily stop anywhere short of that. Both sets of terrorists are interested in concessions and efforts at compromise only as evidence that the bombings are moving the enemy in the right direction, however slowly.
Compromises are possible, of course, but only with terrorists who are willing to become ex-terrorists, like Michael Collins in the 1920s or Arafat now. But terrorism survived the compromises. In the current case, Israel surrendered territory to Arafat, hoping to get peace in exchange. But unreconstructed terrorists, ignoring Arafat, have been able to use the territory surrendered as a base for attacks on Israel.
To seek to end terrorism by compromise is a fallacy in logic, because it misrepresents the nature of the phenomenon with which it attempts to cope. But beneath the fallacy lies a powerful emotional force: guilt (exceptionally strong in Gladstone, for example). British Gladstonian liberals -- to be found today among both Tories and Labourites -- feel chronically guilty about Britain's past treatment of Ireland. Israeli doves -- the liberals of Israel -- feel guilty about Israel's treatment of Palestinian Arabs. In both cases, there are some reasons for guilt. Unfortunately, feelings of guilt are of no help in the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, they are a resource which the terrorist knows he can exploit, and he does so with a savage satisfaction.
In some cases, but not in all, there are political initiatives that could isolate the terrorists, and perhaps eventually lead to their defeat. For Israel, peace with Syria is the best available option: to give back the Golan Heights, in exchange for which Syria would eliminate terrorism in Lebanon and dry up the sources of supply for terrorists in the Territories.
In Northern Ireland, unfortunately, no promising political option is within reach. There are two sets of private armies there, a Protestant one and a Catholic one. Efforts to appease one -- at present the Catholics -- do not appease it, and they risk arousing the latent violence of the other one. Efforts to make the realities of Northern Ireland conform to a Gladstonian agenda are doomed to failure. The best hope for Northern Ireland would be a co-ordination of security measures between London and Dublin, including the introduction of internment -- applied evenly to both sets of political-sectarian paramilitaries -- on both sides of the border. (Which worked during the Second World War and in 1957 - 1962.) At present British and Irish versions of liberalism (combining in Ireland with nationalism) inhibit that response. I fear that the necessary measures will not be taken until things get much worse. The IRA promises another 25 years of ``war.''
IF THE terrorist threat increases in America, American liberals are likely to oppose any counter-measures which may be proposed against it. In doing so they will claim the sanction of Thomas Jefferson, whose protests against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 are part of the charter of American liberalism. But I don't think American liberalism is strong enough, in itself, to inhibit counter-measures against terrorism. What might inhibit them is something different but cognate: the dislike among millions of Americans for the restraints and constraints of ``ordered freedom'' and a taste for the absolute stuff, straight out of the bottle: the version of the Jeffersonian tradition offered by McVeigh and Nichols. Most of the five million members of the National Rifle Association no doubt repudiate terrorist acts. But most of them would oppose any serious clampdown on terrorists who happened to be white, Christian, and conservative. So liberals protesting against an anti-terrorist clampdown would have some unaccustomed allies. If American terrorism ever acquires sustained momentum, it could be more dangerous than is today's terrorism in the Middle East and the British Isles.
Let me close with a pair of disquieting statistics. I have seen it estimated that there are between thirty and forty thousand armed men in the militia movement who regard themselves as either at war or on the verge of war with the Federal Government. The total active membership of the IRA is reckoned as between two and three thousand.