Defending freedom in a world of moral absolutes

Here are two bits of advice. Do not go to Indonesia unless it is essential because you might get caught up in a bombing. Do not go to Indonesia because bombers are targeting your country.

The first applies to New Zealanders, the second to Australians. The Australian embassy in Jakarta has been attacked. The New Zealand embassy is unlikely to be attacked unless as collateral.

Australians fear an attack at home. New Zealanders don’t. If there is danger in this country it is of an attack on American, Australian or British diplomats here. Those three countries invaded Iraq, New Zealand didn’t.

That distinction between front line and collateral, however, is a fine one and likely to be drawn only in respect of states, if at all. New Zealanders are predominantly western, subscribe to the western value system and are intricately bound up with the American way of life.

It is those western values and that American way of life that the warped islamic clerics and bombers demonise and target. No American is innocent in their eyes. Neither is any New Zealander.

The chances of getting bombed are very small. People in hotspots learn to live with the remote possibility of being bombed, as I did when the Irish Republican Army (in part funded by Americans) was planting bombs in London. A lot of it goes on around the world. Humans have huge reservoirs of hate.

What is different now is that some Arabs drove planes spectacularly into the Twin Towers in New York and the United States went to war. The world may not have changed three years ago last Saturday, as some claimed. But the United States has changed and it rules the world economy.

The essence of that change is in President George Bush’s dictum in early 2002 that: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time and in every place.” He has set about defending and proselytising that moral truth.

Certainty of this sort in the minds of the wrong people have caused untold suffering down the centuries. Hateful certitudes in the minds of the Islamic fanatics Bush is fighting are causing suffering now.

Bush talks of good battling evil in the manner of a Greek tragedy or Wagnerian epic. American commentator Samuel Huntington divined a “clash of civilisations”. Norman Podhoretz, an American Jewish intellectual, has labelled it World War IV (WWIII having been the cold war between the liberal democracies and the communist states).

If this is World War IV the adversary is rather small — not a mighty military machine or totalitarian bloc of nuclear-armed states but a shadowy, even if lethal, sect which envies and hates the United States, its values and its wealth and hides in dark corners.

Nevertheless, take Podhoretz seriously. He is a leading “neo-con” (neo-conservative) and “neo-cons” are the moral force in the Bush Administration.

Podhoretz was long editor and is now editor-at-large of Commentary, an influential rightwing journal. In a long essay in this month’s edition on the “pillars” of Bush’s foreign policy and defence doctrine, he excoriates some critics of Bush as peddling veiled anti-semitism.

Podhoretz writes that many of those who moved from the left in the 1960s to the right now and are identified as “neo-cons” are Jews. Critics have focused on those “neo-cons” who have Jewish names. They have thus implied a conspiracy by Jews “to manipulate the world for their own nefarious purposes”.

Go down this track and you soon get to Israel. Go one small step further and you run into Islamic deviants only too keen to conjure a world Jewish conspiracy.

It beggars imagination that there is any such conspiracy and it is also hard to imagine that any but a cranky few on the far right and far left in the United States think there is either.

But with Bush we are not in a world of shadings of meaning but in one of moral absolutes. There is room only for friends and enemies.

And so we are all constrained.

Exporters pay more now to have their containers inspected before transport to the United States. Airlines and airports have more complex procedures. Our passports will have to carry biometric information. We must quell Americans’ (realistic) horror of another bomb on home soil.

Partly at United States insistence, there are tougher international rules on terror organisations and on refugees. And the rule of law is no longer sacrosanct in World War IV.

A Kafkaesque account in the August 5 London Review of Books of the detention without trial in Britain of a mentally ill Arab, given indefinite leave to live there in 1998, indicates where that can lead. The man has innocent and documented explanations for the allegations against him but may not see or contest any of the evidence on which his continued detention is based nor even know whether his explanations have been noted.

Britain invented the rule of law. The United States enshrined it. A rabble of religious fanatics have chipped it with their bombs. Our freedom, you understand, is not a moral absolute.