Or: Fanning the flames of fear for political gain
Canada has recently suffered two IS-inspired terrorist attacks. Each was carried out by a Canadian citizen acting alone, was poorly planned, and resulted in the tragic death of Canadian military personnel and the not-so-tragic death of the attacker. Each attacker acted on inspiration from a recent call-to-arms from the IS terrorist organization in the middle east. The most recent attack struck inside Canada’s Parliament Buildings while members of parliament (including the Prime Minister) were present. As such, it caused quite a scare among our elected officials and drew attention to lax security on Parliament Hill.
A shrill battle cry
Notwithstanding the scare he received, I was disgusted by our Prime Minister’s public reaction to the attacks. Whereas the British were relatively calm and measured in their response to the 7/7 London bombings, Prime Minister Harper struck a shrill and fearsome tone much in the style of George W. Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks in the US and the ensuing “war on terror”. In early statements, Harper refers to these crimes as “attack[s] on our soil” and asserts that Canada will
fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.
This kind of talk conjures an image of a vast army of Orcs invading our country. We are made to feel as though we are suffering an existential threat, that it’s us or them, that we are engeged in all-out war against an enemy with a realistic chance of wiping us out. I feel like I’ve been primed for the loss of liberty and for military conscription.
Is IS really responsible?
The reality is that these attacks were not carried out by IS, but rather by incompetent lunatics who were inspired by calls to action from IS. There is a difference. If I were to post a call to violence in any of countries A, B, C, or D on this blog tomorrow, and if some lunatic I’ve never met in country C heeded this call and killed someone, then in what sense have I committed an act of terrorism against country C? Have I also committed acts of terrorism against A, B, and D, even if no one there heeded my call?
Granted, unlike some blog idiot such as myself, IS has demonstrated the repeated ability to draw out attackers in other countries. Canada is therefore justified in retaliating against IS in self defense, even if there were no better reason. IS is not directly responsible for the attacks in Canada; at most, IS is only indirectly responsible.
IS as Ebola: the right way to react
In any case, IS emphatically is not an invading army that threatens our very existence. Our government ought to save the shrill battle cries for the real thing.
Instead, IS should be viewed as a reservoir of Ebola that has managed to infect a couple of Canadians. It is grim and tragic that that innocent Canadians have died as a result of this infection. Canada should take steps to drain the reservoir. The need to sacrifice freedom or privacy and to give law enforcement a freer hand in the fight against this disease has not been demonstrated. There is no need to panic.
Indeed, one of IS’s goals is to instill fear in the hearts of Canadians. The recent attacks have certainly instilled fear, but Harper’s reaction only adds to that fear. The correct response is to diminish fear, thus foiling the objectives of the terrorists, and not to increase fear, which instead helps our enemies achieve their goals. The British attempted to diminish fear after 7/7. Harper has increased fear and thus rendered aid to the enemy. (Where have I heard that phrase before?)
Political strategy: never change your government in wartime
Why has Harper chosen a shrill, war-on-terror reaction that helps our enemy as opposed to a calm and solemn reaction that would hurt our enemy? A common explanation for the battle cry is that it consolidates power in the incumbent. Society rarely turfs its leaders in a time of war. People are more willing to sacrifice for the greater good, giving government a freer hand to pursue its agenda.
The battle cry also plays to the Conservative base, which includes xenophobic, law-and-order types. Situations such as this are ideal times to pander to that base by passing legislation that would never get passed in peacetime. Indeed, Harper has already declared:
Our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest. … [W]ork which is already under way will be expedited.
This explanation also perfectly predicts the reactions of the opposition parties: Tom Mulcair (leader of the leftist NDP) refuses to call the incidents “terrorist attacks”, preferring instead the more subdued label, “crimes”. The Liberals (a centrist party) began by referring to the attackers as “criminals” but then switched to “terrorists” after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued statements using the latter term. Both opposition parties have taken a calm (and largely correct) approach to the situation. If only they’d done it for reasons nobler than partisan political gain.
That explanation is very cynical, but I confess I cannot think of a better one.
Incidentally, I initially thought that these acts are crimes but not terrorism. But the definition of “terrorism” applies here: “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”
I think the confusion is caused by changes in the society’s interpretation of the word. Ever since 9/11, “terrorism” is associated with well-planned attacks directly coordinated by foreign extremists that cause mass destruction. Naturally, Conservatives can use this confusion to their benefit. They can force opposition to use the word by pointing to its formal definition with full knowledge that society hears a message that’s well-tuned to Conservative strategy.