11 January 2015

Harper's histrionics

Terrorist attacks are theatre. And what theatre they have been presenting lately. The 9/11 spectacle of planes flying into tall buildings was the most spectacular event ever seen on television. The shooting spree by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill put Canada in the global spotlight for days, and the recent mass murder in Paris has mesmerized the world. It's hard to beat a terrorist attack for high drama.

It's not surprising therefore that these events attract massive publicity, which of course is largely the point. But outside of sensational news days, how important are they? According to our Prime Minister, very important. They, in his words, "threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value."

Let's parse Mr. Harper's comment. Terrorist attacks certainly threaten the peace, but to what degree? The answer is not very much. In the U.S. for instance, the land of 9/11, Americans are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. In Canada, the peaceable kingdom, the risk is even less, that is to say hardly any risk at all.

As for democracy, the answer is much the same. Islamist extremists don't threaten the state, at least any Western state. They aren't going to overthrow the American government, or the Canadian, or the French. They pose no threat to democracy. And as to the threat to our freedoms, it isn't terrorist attacks that pose the threat, it's our reaction, or overreaction, to those attacks that has eroded our freedoms.

So when these random events, vicious though they may be, pose such little threat, why does our Prime Minister prattle on about threats to our values? Why does he, and many of his political colleagues elsewhere, use these events to greatly expand the powers of our spy agencies and our security forces, thereby doing more to threaten our civil liberties than the terrorists could hope to do?

One answer is panic. Politicians fear terrorism because it makes them look weak, and little terrorizes a politician more than looking weak. Another answer is demagoguery. Since the dawn of politics, leaders have rallied their people around them by instilling fear, by convincing citizens they are in mortal danger. One hates to think a Canadian leader would exploit mass murder for political advantage, but our leader isn't exactly the prince of ethics and he desperately needs a stick to beat Mr. Trudeau off with.

Both these reasons may apply to Mr. Harper's histrionics. On the other hand, perhaps it's just that terrorism is an issue that nicely accommodates his view of the world. The Prime Minister is a man who sees the world in black and white. He is uncomfortable with subtlety, with nuance, with grey areas. You are either with him or against him, friend or enemy. Terrorism plays perfectly into this mindset. The terrorist is pure evil, we are pure good, no need to clutter our minds with attempts to understand the motivations of the wicked other, no need to consider the century of abuse the West has inflicted on the Muslim people of the Middle East. Combine this with Harper's predilection for war and he morphs into his Churchill persona, simply being himself, with political expediency as a bonus.

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