Too Much Democracy? Or Not Enough?
by Steven Bodzin

Written Sept. 20, 2001, sent in Joel's email broadcast Oct., 2001 (posted Jan., 2003)

In the weeks following September 11, 2001, I received a couple dozen commentary emails discussing the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. This essay is my favorite, written by my friend Steven Bodzin. I sent it out to my personal email broadcast list early in October 2001.

If you want to join my list, which I send out an average of about ten times a year, please let me know.

My broadcast emailing policies are: I send no commercial spam ever. I send out only emails which I have written myself or which I think are great and you are unlikely to be able to get from another source. Once every few months I send a note mentioning new things on my Web site. —Joel

Today, many Americans are currently calling for freedoms to be curtailed in order to prevent terrorism. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. If we want to prevent future terrorist attacks, we need more democracy, not less. It is time for us to act from hope, not from fear.

America's greatest strength comes from our efforts at democracy. Our government is, in theory, the slave of the people, and not vice versa. Though our democracy has many failings, the basic principle has worked for 225 years: The worst government decisions have been corrected through peaceful activism, not violent revolutions. Our freedom of speech and assembly makes the nation stable, by ensuring that all people can lend their voices, their brains, and their spirits to our tremendous national project.

However, we don't always take democracy seriously. We say, it's fine for everyday life, but when push comes to shove, we need a dictator. Our hopeless acquiescence to tyranny is clearest in the creation of our most undemocratic, tyrannical organizations: the multinational corporations and the military.

The U.S. military is exempt from the Bill of Rights. It acts with impunity outside of international law. It ignores environmental laws. And of course, the command structure is entirely hierarchical, with no voice given to the men and women who must do the dirty work for the wealthy commanders.

The corporate world is just as bad. No public corporation is run democratically; they are all oligarchies of wealth. Corporations have grown enough that they exempt themselves from labor laws, environmental laws, and the other restrictions that nations have traditionally placed upon them. They use campaign contribution bribery to distort democracy for their own ends. They have all the power of governments, but without the humanizing influence of voters.

It is no mistake that on Tuesday, the terrorists struck the greatest symbol of corporate power, and the center of military command.

It is utterly horrifying and inexcusable that these people committed these acts. With creativity and patience, rather than fanaticism and hopelessness, they could have helped organize democratically to accomplish their political goals, without creating the raw human horror of these mass murders. We can and will bring those responsible to some sort of reckoning.

At the same time, we must consider—the terrorists were not simply aiming for body count. They were not attacking freedom or democracy, contrary to George Bush's pathetic speech Tuesday night. If the terrorists were looking simply to kill, or looking to attack symbols of freedom, they could have attacked an inaugural parade, a Super Bowl, a Fourth of July celebration, or the Statue of Liberty. Instead, they attacked two of the world's greatest symbols of anti-democratic tyranny: The World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Any American who truly doesn't understand how other people see the US military and banks needs to log onto the web and look at a newspaper from any other country in the world.

(Side note: The global corporate and military regimes have no true citizens. This was not particularly an attack on America, or on the American people. It was an attack on institutions that openly and willingly pollute, kill, maim, and exploit Americans as well as other people.)

Why is it that corporations and the military draw this wrath? It is because these are institutions out of control. They have foregone the moderating, smartening influence of democracy. Instead, they go it alone, charging wildly into adventures without regard for the effect on regular people.

For too long, we have let the military and corporate structures of America be run as tyrannies. For too long, they have existed without the check and balance of public accountability. They have combined to drive millions of people throughout the world into utter hopelessness. On Tuesday, September 11, a few of these hopeless masses struck back in the most desperate way imaginable.

Reacting in shock and horror at the events of that day, a leaderless America is reacting from its most base instinct—fear. Lacking moral leadership, Americans are calling for the dramatic reduction in civil liberties for people both in the country and elsewhere. They are demanding curtailments on freedom of speech and assembly. They want racial profiling of Arabs, possibly to the point of committing violence or human rights abuses upon those individuals. A demagogic congressman demands in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution that entire nations of civilians be destroyed without trial, an act that would be even more morally reprehensible than the Trade Center murders. People are attacking peaceful Arabs and Moslems, for no reason other than uncontrolled bigotry and terror.

The government leaders and bureaucrats are happy to comply. Like members of any institution, the people in charge of the government abhor democracy. They will gladly curtail freedoms in order to enhance their short term power. Already, Wired News reports that the FBI has dramatically increased its espionage on the everyday lives of law-abiding citizens.

Are these the actions of a nation standing tough? I thought we didn't want to buckle under to terrorism. We must maintain the proudest aspects of America in the face of this terror. We must not lock ourselves down in fear. Rather, we must take this time to enhance democracy, rather than eroding it.

In the past, we have regretted every instance where we decreased civil liberties. We regret the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. We regret the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the 1950s. We regret the FBI activities of the 1960s and 70s, spying on such peaceful Americans as Martin Luther King and John Lennon. Every time we erode our own rights in the name of fear, we regret it in the end.

If the government suspends any civil liberties, it weakens our democracy. In the long term, that will undermine our strength as a nation, making our lives more like the rigid, miserable lives of people in Saudi Arabia or North Korea. We will have stability and safety, but at what cost?

Rights apply not only to flag-waving Americans. Indeed, rights that are removed during crises are not rights at all. If we are to enhance our democracy, and prepare ourselves for another 225 years of freedom, inventiveness, and the living thrill that we call America, we must apply these rights to Osama bin Laden and his ilk. No matter the evidence against them, due process is their right.

Pragmatically, providing due process will help us find out the truth behind the attacks, and possibly find further culprits. But more importantly, we will show the world that we believe in our creed of democracy. It will show that we are still young and hopeful. It will show that all nations can become great by embracing that silly old-fashioned concept: Government by the people, for the people.

Thus, we must take this opportunity to expand our democracy. We need much better civilian oversight of the military. We need corporations to recognize that they exist to serve the public good, as well as their own private profits. We must give the people of our country a voice in shaping the corporate and military agenda.

Yes, democracy moves more slowly than tyranny. But what is better—rapid response that tramples our most central beliefs? Or a slightly slower-moving society that lives up to the great creed called democracy.

We must show that we do not compromise with terrorists. We do not buckle under. We stand strong, confident in the rightness of democracy, prepared boldly for the future, whatever it might bring. We must act from hope, rather than fear.



Return to the top

Home again home again, jiggity jig