When freedom's just another weapon

In the war on terror, as during the cold war, the ultimate weapon has been freedom: free elections, free speech, free trade, for instance. But Hamas's win in the Palestinian vote, protests over the Muhammad cartoons, and a US debate over an Arab firm managing six American ports have raised doubts about freedom's worth.

In all three cases, the values of democracy, equality, and openness appear to some people as working against the cause of defeating Islamic terrorists by promoting freedom. Enemies are seen as using the "weapons" meant to defeat them, somewhat like Lenin's warning that capitalists will sell someone the rope with which they themselves could be hung.

As a result of this perception of liberty being turned against liberty, some in the West are tempted to retreat from these principles, which are the legacy of the Enlightenment and the bedrock of civilization and progress.

First case: In the aftermath of the Danish cartoons, no Western government has resorted to censoring publications that purposely offend Muslims but few have stood tall in defending the liberty of free speech. The fear of retribution from militant Muslims has cowed some voices that normally cherish this right.

Second case: Free trade, too, has taken a knock with the reaction in the US over news of a company from the United Arab Emirates that's taken over operations of ports in Miami, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, and New Jersey. Stereotyping has kicked in, and this one involves racism against any Arab entity owning a vital piece of the US economy, especially one that could be an entry point for terrorist weapons.

The company, Dubai Ports World, is hardly a terrorist front. It is a world-class company that hires many Americans. It is based in a Muslim city-state that is pro-US. It's been well screened by the federal government. And the British port operator it replaced is just as prone to terrorist infiltration.

Denying it this business would mean denying trade and business to any Muslim company or country. And what's more, the primary task of inspecting cargo lies not with port operators but with US Customs and the Coast Guard.

The most difficult, current challenge to Western values, however, lies in the Hamas election victory. Both the US and Israel have turned their backs on this result of democracy because of Hamas's past support for attacks on Israeli civilians and its denial of Israel's right to exist. The two nations are moving to turn off their money spigots to the Palestinian Authority in hopes of spurring Palestinians to reject Hamas or force Hamas to accept Israel and peace.

Israel's desire not to fund any group that backs terrorists is understandable. But to destabilize a small, new democracy in the Middle East would send a contrary signal to democracy advocates in the more important Arab nations of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Hamas, which has continued a cease-fire with Israel, must be given time to see that its past rhetoric and actions won't fit the reality of running a government or Palestinians' desire for a two-state solution with Israel.

If universal values are to be spread by the West, the West must maintain its consistency in applying them.

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