"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 2, 1933
"Over the last few years, a great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil which has been growing more and more powerful: violent jihadism." – Stephen Harper, January 30, 2015
Fear is better than hope. This appears to be Stephen Harper and the Conservatives’ real campaign slogan in this election year.
Last Friday, at an election-style event in Richmond Hill, Harper unveiled plans for a new round of “anti-terror” legislation. But the prime minister wasn’t primarily interested in outlining specifics of his proposed Bill C-51, so much as he was in scaring the living shit out of Canadians.
“Canadians are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians.
They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents. Because they hate pluralism, they hate tolerance, and they hate the freedom of others, the freedom we enjoy. Through their deeds, these jihadists have declared war on Canada and with their words, they urge others to join their campaign of terror against Canadians.”
This is fearmongering. Harper’s words are both imprecise and counter-productive. First, to state that “jihadists have declared war on Canada” is to attribute far too much to the two attacks in Canada last fall. Like George W. Bush before him, Harper’s overblown rhetoric constitutes a propaganda victory for real terrorist groups, especially since in these cases we don’t know whether they had any direct role in the attacks. This big talk from Harper does nothing to make citizens here any safer.
Harper’s new “anti-terror” talking points are tailored to suit cynical and crass political ends. It’s also, for Harper, Plan B. For years, the prime minister has maneuvered and schemed for a budget surplus in 2015. But the bottom has fallen out from the price of oil and the Canadian dollar. Finance Minister Joe Oliver even had to delay the federal budget. Harper’s plan to run for re-election on “it’s the economy, stupid” no longer makes sense.
Fear is Harper’s last chance. The two violent incidents in October have understandably made people in Canada worried and apprehensive. Rather than projecting an attitude of “keep calm and carry on,” Harper responded by doubling down on new legislation that was already in the works to expand the government’s powers of surveillance.
The proposed Bill C-51 is so bad that even the Globe and Mail weighed in with a strident editorial, stating, “Under the cloud of fear produced by his repeated hyperbole about the scope and nature of the threat, he now wants to turn our domestic spy agency into something that looks disturbingly like a secret police force.”
It’s such a cliche that it’s hardly worth critiquing, but Harper’s version of “they hate us for our freedoms” is a bizarre thing to say when announcing encroachments on basic freedoms and expansion of secret police powers.
The Globe and Mail editors rightfully noted that Harper’s remarks last week continued a pattern of hyperbole regarding the threat posed to Canada by ISIS, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The danger here is not in denouncing the disgusting thuggery of the militias that constitute ISIS, a basic and necessary human response. The danger is in Harper’s purposefully conflating the geography of battle. The sectarian conflagration in the Middle East can’t be equated with mostly isolated violent attacks in countries such as Canada, France or the United States.
To make this point is also to remember that the overwhelming majority of terrorism’s victims are in countries with majority Muslim populations, and to recall that this “Evil” didn’t just descend out of a clear blue sky “over the past few years,” as Harper describes it. It’s important to find ways to support secular and minority groups targeted by violent extremists throughout South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. But conflating it all with a repressive domestic agenda does nothing practical to help those who are actually on the front lines of this fight.
The strand of Islamist extremism that has mutated into ISIS originated in Saudi Arabia, disseminated through official and unofficial channels from the Wahabist regime and its wealthy entourage. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the new Saudi king’s biography.)
Of course, ISIS also emerged from the ashes of the disastrous Iraq War, which Harper supported at the time. It also developed in opposition to the corrupt and sectarian Shia regime in Baghdad, and as part of the armed resistance backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others against the Syrian government. In both Syria and Iraq, then, ISIS’ primary opponents were political regimes backed by Iran.
This is relevant because it reminds us that Harper isn’t just opportunistic and imprecise when he talks about war and terrorism, he’s often also plain wrong. Recall that for years Harper and his foreign minister, John Baird, claimed that the Iranian regime constituted the greatest threat to world peace. For Harper, denunciations of Iran have long gone hand in hand with warnings about “Islamicism.”
In practical terms, Harper and Baird backed this up by prioritizing commercial, military and diplomatic relations with Israel and the Gulf dictatorships, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudi petro-tyranny is, in particular, an arch-enemy of the Iranian regime. For the past year, the Harper government has boasted about its record $10 billion-plus military export deal with the Saudi dictatorship. If Harper were really worried about stopping Evil, he might stop arming it.
While the opposition parties responded to Bill C-51 with tepid concerns and criticisms, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association sounded the alarm.
“This radical expansion of national security powers is not sound security policy and presents a real danger to Canadians. Our national security agencies have shamefully inadequate oversight and are hostile to accountability. Canada has utterly failed to respond to the urgent need for national security oversight and instead, proposes an unprecedented expansion of powers that will harm innocent Canadians and not increase our public safety.”
The truth is that the only thing we have to fear is the Harper government itself. The solution is not to legislate a secret police, or to police the expression of ideas.
To respectfully amend the last words of Jack Layton, hope can sometimes be stronger than fear. In this election year, it needs to be.