"One who gives up liberty for security, soon finds he has neither."
ay what you want about Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, but the man could really turn a phrase. The founder of the Soviet Union once remarked that decades go by and nothing happens; then a week goes by and decades happen. If you didn't know better you'd think he was anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union...or the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Decades seem to have gone by since hijacked airplanes plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and anthrax made its way mysteriously into news rooms, post offices, and ventilation ducts, like a snake slithering unnoticed into some dark corner to await an unsuspecting passer-by. You could have fallen into a coma on September 10th, and, awakening weeks later, discover the world had become unrecognizable. A president whose legitimacy was in question had become a vaunted hero, admired by over 90 percent of Americans. Champions of civil liberties had become ardent destroyers of basic rights and freedoms. And a world that thought the risks of world war died with the Berlin Wall, discovered it had been plunged into a war involving many countries that could last a lifetime.
Before Sept.11 a major newspaper would never run a story discussing the use of torture to elicit information from suspects. Today it can, and few people are shocked.
Last June, I could borrow the title of American novelist Sinclair Lewis's, It Can't Happen Here, a story of an American president who becomes a dictator to save his country in a time of crisis, to write a column exploring the tenuous and largely rhetorical Anglo-American commitment to civil liberties. The true test of America's -- and Canada's -- commitment to democracy and freedom would lie in how either country reacted to crisis. Not well, I predicted. Today, a man who wasn't elected has been granted massive powers to wage war indefinitely, and to build a police state. Canada's leaders, ever the faithful lackeys, follow suit. The ghost of Sinclair Lewis hovers over the White House, smiling knowingly.
The satirical website The Onion discovered that decades can go by during which satire is obvious and then weeks go by when satire, no matter how hard you try, is impossible. "In response to threats facing America's free democratic system," The Onion reported, "White House officials called upon Americans to stop exercising their democratic freedoms." That's satirical? Bush said the terrorists were striking against America's freedom and democracy, and then took steps to limit both.
But then commitment to democracy, to free speech, to civil liberties, has always been more rhetorical than real, not only in the United States, but here at home, too. Western governments, soi-disant beacons of democracy, are talking of installing a puppet government in Kabul that will in no way reflect the wishes, desires, or aspirations of ordinary Afghans, but will faithfully bend to Washington's will. Feminist Sunera Thobani describes American foreign policy as soaked in blood, and is roundly castigated. "She shouldn't be allowed to say these things," clamour those, who, in other times, sententiously mouth Voltaire's, "I don not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
Where I live, city officials once decided to erect a speakers corner where the rabble could mount a platform and declaim to passers-by. The purpose was to celebrate the city's commitment to civil liberties in a conspicuous, showy, and ,it was hoped, innocuous way. One day a dishevelled character, hair unkempt, the greying bristles of his three-day old beard barely masking 10-days of accumulated grime, mounted the steps of the platform, issued a boozy burp, took a deep breath, and launched into a harangue that began "I'm not racist but..." That was the end of speakers corner. Today, the platform cleared away, the small throng of curious onlookers who used to shake their heads in amusement at those courageous, deluded or drunk enough to mount the platform has been replaced by lunchtime crowds queuing up to buy a bag of soggy French fries from Frank's Super Fries. Every time I pass Frank's, I'm reminded that civil liberties are tolerated, only so long as it's convenient . There's a phrase for this in law -- a "reasonable" restriction on liberties. It's otherwise known as a loophole.
You can't be a pacifist between wars, a civil libertarian between crises, anymore than you can be a vegetarian between meals or a non-smoker between cigarettes, but if the people in charge had their druthers, you -- or rather they -- could be. They'd just build in a loophole, and they'd call it, a reasonable restriction on whatever: vegetarianism, pacifism, civil liberties. It's kind of like all those symbol-minded Christians, as comedian George Carlin might put it, who make a conspicuous show of their fealty to Christ -- or at least to the symbols of Christianity -- but reject all the inconvenient parts of the Bible, like turning the other cheek. You'd think Christians would be pacifists, rather than bloodthirsty, revenge-seeking, warmongers, as many of them are. But then you'd think civil libertarians would be civil libertarians.
Take Canada's Justice Minister and the government's point person on anti-terrorism legislation, Anne McLellan. Once a civil libertarian who sat on the board of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, McLellan is now fashioning legislation that will unceremoniously trample upon your civil liberties and mine, and could get people who are not terrorists thrown into jail on terrorism charges. Asked by reporters whether protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last spring could have been arrested under her legislation, MacLellan replied, "There may be those involved who would fit the definition of terrorism." Who? Jaggi Singh, to be charged with the terrorist act of using a catapult to lob teddy-bears over the security perimeter? Strange how what should have been an effort to bring the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to justice has mushroomed into an unending war that could, according to US officials, last a lifetime; where anyone Western governments don't like -- like anti-globalization protesters who smash a few windows or disrupt essential services -- are elevated to the status of super-terrorist, on par with Osama bin Laden. You'd think that with the public terrified, governments have decided the time is ripe to settle more than a few scores. Carpe diem.
While settling those scores, if a few score innocent people get caught in the crossfire, indeed, a few million innocent people get in the way, so be it. Listen to Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley, head of the new anti-terrorism cabinet committee. On the possibility of civilian casualties in attacks on Afghanistan: "Canada would feel that innocent people have already been hurt." On making anti-terrorism legislation so broad that it could apply to members of legitimate groups: "I'm afraid we'll miss someone. I'm not afraid we'll name someone who's innocent."
Unspoken in all this is that some lives are worth more than others. And some people's security is worth more than other's. How else to explain that over $1 billion has been raised to aid the families of the 6,000 who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, while the UN "has taken in just $147-million of the $654-million it estimates its agencies require to provide about 7.5 million ...Afghans with the basic necessities of life for the next six months," according to The Globe and Mail.
Ever alert to the possibility that this looming humanitarian disaster could turn into a public relations debacle, US President George W. Bush asked, "every child in America to earn or give a dollar that will be used to provide food and medical help for the children of Afghanistan." Washington's bombing campaign is making it hard to get food relief to the millions of Afghans, wretched, poor, miserable, themselves victims of the Taliban, who, owing to drought and decades of civil war, are unable to feed themselves. And now as countless numbers flee the bombing, Bush is urging children to "send your dollar in an envelope marked 'America's Fund for Afghan Children' right here to the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C."
Writer William Blum has a better idea:
"I suggest that we send the envelopes, but not with any money; instead with a note saying something like "You could help the children of Afghanistan a great deal more if you'd stop bombing their country, killing them and their parents, and making it impossible for real charitable organizations to bring food, medical, and other aid into the country."
Ah, but humanitarianism isn't where Washington's true genius lies. Bombing is. And PR.
As for the other innocents -- the people who have nothing to do with terrorism, but are likely to get caught in the government's far too broad anti-terrorism net -- The Globe and Mail, Canada's estimable newspaper, has these soothing words: "Most Canadians will not be terribly inconvenienced (by MacLellan's anti-terrorism legislation). Instead, the cost will be borne by people who find themselves targets of police suspicion because of their ethnic background, radical political views or association with immigrant communities that have ties with groups deemed to be terrorist fronts."
In other words, unless your name is Mohammed, or Moustapha, if you don't wear a turban, and you don't think the abrogation of civil liberties borders on fascism, you have nothing to fear. As for the rest of you, including those who are engaged in the possibly seditious act of reading this column, watch out. Not only can Lewis' nightmare of a police state happen here -- it has.
And the worst part of all this is that giving up civil liberties is supposed to be the price we pay for getting something in return -- security. Except rather than getting more security we're getting less.
Soon after Washington decided to flex its military muscles by bombing Afghanistan, US intelligence sources told the Senate that the attack made "future terrorist attacks 100 percent certain." And soon after Canada decided to join Washington's war, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Canada could be a target for terrorist attacks, too. So where's the increased security?
Gagging Sunera Thobani isn't going to deliver security, and neither is jailing a 19-year old who tussles with police at an anti-WTO demonstration going to do much to keep us safe from terrorist attacks. Placing newspaper columnists under surveillance because they've criticized US foreign policy doesn't increase security. And as to torturing terrorist suspects to elicit information, as one torture-expert said, "People have made up entire political parties under torture. Not only is it morally reprehensible to torture suspects; it doesn't work."
How about detaining suspected terrorists without charge? When Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to deal with an apprehended insurrection that turned out not to be an insurrection at all, police rounded up all kinds of people, who they knew had nothing whatever to do with the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross. They weren't going to let a opportunity go by. Today, people who supported Trudeau's decision admit they made a mistake.
Over 700 people are in jail in the United States on suspicion of being involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Many of them have been beaten by fellow prisoners. Authorities have evidence linking only four of them to the attacks. That speaks volumes of how wide the net can be cast, and of how many innocent people can, and may yet, get caught up in it. So much for their security.
Sell your liberties to the government for security, and you'll end up with neither, warned Benjamin Franklin. Some things we just keep learning the hard way.