Matthew Behrens
Lost in the '50s with Harper's anti-terror pablum

| March 24, 2015
Photo: James Vaughan/flickr

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Last Friday, viewers of the CBC's flagship news program, The National, could be forgiven for thinking they were back in the Leave it to Beaver 1950s. Indeed, they ran a saccharine story that would have done proud former Soviet and East German state news agencies. In fact, had it run during the Cold War, it would hopefully be touted in today's journalism schools as an embarrassing parody of what their profession is supposed to be.

It's the tale of little six-year-old Jacob, who really likes spies. So much so that he wrote to CSIS to ask if they could help him set up a spy club. Little Jacob did not know, perhaps, that CSIS is an agency found to be complicit in a variety of illegal acts, from complicity in torture and recording solicitor-client legal calls to uttering threats, coercing Muslims into spying on their own communities, and lying in front of judges during secret hearings.

After a four-month delay, Canada's spy agency, perhaps sensing a wonderful whitewashing opportunity, sent Jacob a CSIS hat, medallion, and patch. In a classic example of servile stenography to power, a CBC reporter then produced a puff piece celebrating an agency littered with human rights abuses (as confirmed by two judicial inquiries, Supreme Court and Federal Court decisions, and even the agency's own weak review committee and since-disbanded inspector general).

"I was so surprised that they would take the time to really make the day of a six-year-old, and send all this gear, it was very surprising and heartwarming," said Jacob's mother.

"I'm gonna send a letter, I want some stuff," the reporter chimes in.

"You should," the mom replies, as they both share a laugh and fade in to the chuckle of CBC anchor Peter Whitemansbridge.

Old KGB and Stasi veterans no doubt wept a tear remembering how they, too, enjoyed such free publicity with Izvestia and Pravda.

The only thing missing from the puff piece was the heroic theme music of something like The FBI Story, the barnstorming Jimmy Stewart film, and subsequent spinoffs celebrating G-men, many of which were vetted by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to ensure maximum patriotic celebration for a similarly scandal-plagued institution. Indeed, The FBI, the long-running TV series, gave the real-life coppers casting control, and so troublemakers and alleged commies like Robert Blake and Bette Davis were forbidden from appearing.

Media as servile stenographers

Canada's mainstream media's similarly shoddy reporting on issues related to "radicalization" and so-called national security in general is also reminiscent of the Cold War years, when the smallest of news items that followed a specific anti-Communist narrative was blown up to scare the public into silence, sending them into their backyards to build fallout shelters stocked with Campbell's soup. Those were good years for the powers that be, who were able to easily divert attention from issues of social inequality, racism, and the perils of open-air nuclear testing. As Charles Wilson, a former GE executive, told the Newspaper Publishers Association of America in 1950, their role was to keep Americans convinced that:

"the free world is in mortal danger ... if the people were not convinced of that, it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert that danger ... with the support of public opinion, as marshaled by the press, we are off to a good start. But the mobilization job cannot be completed unless such support is continuous ... It is our job, yours and mine, to keep our people convinced that the only way to keep disaster away from our shores is to build America's might."

And so it remains today, with many reporters breathlessly buying the narrative of Canada at war and in mortal danger, playing the role of Greatest Generation reporters reliving the glory of the Second World War. Back then, or so we are told, we were all on the side of the good guys, and any abuses that may occur in that noble fight (say, Canadian concentration camps for tens of thousands of Japanese heritage) were committed by officials who were only trying to, in the words of a former Canadian Supreme Court judge excusing the more recent actions of Canadian officials complicit in torture, "exercise their best judgment."

By focusing on the alleged virus of terror incubating in immigrant communities and places of worship (and not in the basements of white supremacists planning mass killing in malls, who are dismissed as "murderous misfits" by Peter McKay), Canadian media have put on the backburner the real threat to global citizens: last week, the UN issued two landmark reports on the "alarming" global epidemic of violence against women and an imminent freshwater crisis. Instead, they jumped all over the story of an RCMP Edmonton arrest of a 17-year-old allegedly planning to go to Syria, as well as a man currently being held in detention who was allegedly planning a series of attacks but who has yet to be charged and may well, in the supposed interests of security, be deported! Both have served to conveniently wipe from memory the disturbing reports that someone working on behalf of Canadian state security appeared to be assisting in the recruitment and travel plans of young people headed for ISIS territory.

Conservative terror grist

Such stories will provide grist for the Conservative mill as show hearings continue on Bill C-51. Those twice-weekly Parliamentary gatherings have been a showcase in how similar hearings would have been run in the former Soviet Union: opposing voices, like Amnesty International and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, are being terror-baited and insulted, and time that is supposed to be delegated for questions and discussion is being filled by Conservatives defending the bill and pounding the table, reminding us of mortal danger. Upcoming hearings will be largely dominated by Conservative witnesses whose tales of terror and menace will be aimed at a public opinion that has seen a dramatic plummet in support for C-51 (from over 80 per cent to 38 per cent).

Meantime, throwbacks to the '50s and '60s Cold War nightmare years continue. Oddsmakers are laying bets that Stephen Harper's performance over the past six months as Canada's self-appointed avenging angel will win him the 2015 George Wallace Memorial Racism Award, along with the gold medal of the J. Edgar Hoover Paranoia Society.

For those unfamiliar with the history, half a century ago, Alabama Governor Wallace stood in front of a state university, barring entrance to an African-American student while proclaiming "segregation forever." Harper's similar stance with respect to rejecting full citizenship rights for women who wear niqab has been dismissed by many commentators as a distraction from "more important" issues, but it is, in many respects, symbolic of the deep-seated racism that underlies the "anti-terrorism" Bill C-51, whose targets will, as always, be racialized communities, First Nations, immigrants and refugees.

There's been some timidity around using the terms racism, bigotry, and intolerance, but Harper is clearly playing those cards as he stokes the flames of hatred by consistently equating Islam with violence, abusing the term "jihad," and claiming adherents of Islam emerge from an "anti-women culture." The actions of his state security agencies underscore such racism by continually treating First Nations activists as security threats and by inserting themselves into the holiest of Muslim celebrations, even setting up booths at Eid celebrations. Would the United Church tolerate uniformed Mounties showing up to keep an eye on things during Easter celebrations?

Harper's rhetoric has been coked up with apocalyptic rhetoric, from describing ISIS as everything from a "death cult" (a term more appropriate to NATO, an alliance that has always reserved the right to unleash nuclear weapons and thereby contribute to the end of human life altogether) to a gigantic squid. Indeed, when he welcomed German Chancellor Merkel to Ottawa, Harper bragged that "one of the jihadist monster's tentacles reached as far as our own Parliament."

Such nonsense is fodder for an election that cannot be about an economy that is faltering because of Harper's reliance on another death cult of sorts, the petroleum industry and the tar sands (which scientists have pointed out also threaten the future of life on earth). But it is consistent with the paranoia of former FBI director Hoover, who also used a convenient "enemy" to justify horrific acts of repression at home under the infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that engaged in the kinds of "disruption" that are prescribed in Bill C-51. (That program was, notably, exposed by a small group who heroically broke into an FBI office, seized documents, and shared them with the media. Such actions are well worth repeating to expose similar crimes today.)

Anti-Semitism underlying Red Scare

Hoover variously called communism "a brutal, godless, materialistic way of life which would ruthlessly destroy the values and ideals we cherish … a deadly menace … a worldwide conspiracy … a scourge which threatens the very existence of Western civilization." Sound familiar? While much has been written about Committees on Un-American activities that destroyed the lives of thousands with allegations of Communist membership, few scholars have noted that there was also -- like today's Islamophobia -- a virulent vein of anti-Semitism underlying much of the Red Scare. Indeed, a good number of progressives who stood against racism, capitalism, and war in the 1930s and '40s as socialists and, sometimes, Communists, were Jewish (or perceived to be Jews). In Canada, the RCMP used to park outside the entrance to the progressive Jewish summer getaway, Brampton's Camp Naivelt, taking down the licence plates of summer campers who were singing union songs with Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson.

In the same way that the Red Scare narrative was used as an excuse to repress those seeking a better world and make the planet safe for corporate profit, the "Global War on Terror" has been used both to crack down on dissent in all forms and to divert discussion from the real threats faced by the human race. Indeed, CSIS and the RCMP, as new documents reveal, treated Northern Gateway protests as security threats, and earlier this month, Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison entered that fray when he called terrorism a greater threat than train derailments (conveniently forgetting the 47 people killed amidst the devastated town of Lac-Mégantic and the hundreds of derailments annually despoiling the environment.)

Similarly, Finance Minister Joe Oliver recently complained at a Manning Institute panel discussion about people opposing pipelines. He said they abuse what he called  "social licence," while his panelmate agreed that such licence is becoming "a de facto regulatory burden." Translated, this means people exercising their democratic rights of conscience are posing a problem for the global elite, and recalls the contempt for democracy that was so proudly proclaimed by Mr. "Clash of Civilizations," Samuel Huntington, and his colleagues on the Trilateral Commission. That group, which included key members of the Trudeau and Carter administrations, produced an early-1970s book, The Crisis of Democracy, which alleged the 1960s and 1970s had been a particularly dangerous time for the rich and powerful because members of the civil rights, anti-war, women's liberation, and related social movements had suffered from "an excess of democracy." The antidote for this serious consideration of democratic principles required, in language Joe Oliver would approve, "some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups … There are also potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy."

In today's toxic environment of death cults and evil empires, divide-and-rule will, as it did in the 1950s, play a key role in allowing domestic repression to flourish. Recall that during the post-Second World War era, peace groups, labour unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, among many others, shamefully engaged in purges of alleged "Communists" and "fellow-travellers," rather than question the dominant narrative promulgated by Charles Wilson and his willing press accomplices. Acquiescence to the anti-Communist line poisoned social movements throughout North America with effects still seen today, most recently documented in the wonderful new Brewster Kneen memoir, Journey of an Unrepentant Socialist.

One senses that a similar divide-and-rule is infecting numerous communities, with language like "we're not terrorist" or "we only engage in peaceful protest" being used in the fight against the Harper agenda. Worryingly, this plays right into their hands, reinforcing, for example, the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim narrative, with some mosques barring entry to "difficult" members of the community and lining up to declare they will be the first to turf the "radicalized." And yet what really appears to be happening is a moral panic focused -- as most such panics are -- on the young. They see a messed-up world, have questions, and want to do something about it, but our society has few places for them to go and share their thoughts and concerns on challenging topics (and fewer still will exist under C-51). 

Divide and rule: G20 protesters 'terrorists'?

A perfect example of this divide-and-rule arose at the recent disciplinary hearing of Toronto Police Superintendent Mark Fenton, currently facing five charges of discreditable conduct and unlawful arrest during anti-G20 protests in 2010. Last week, Fenton said of those who threw things at the police and broke windows, "They were engaged, in my view, in terrorism." One may disagree with those protesters' tactical choices -- and I certainly count myself among those in disagreement -- but where was the outrage from activist groups across the country decrying such a statement? Is it that C-51's terms of discussion and toxic debate have so placed people on the defensive that it is just not a good time to speak out against such defamation, in the same way too many did not feel it was the right time to speak out for those who had, in fact, joined the Communist Party because they did not believe in racism, war and capitalism? (Disclosure: Some of those who were eventually charged and jailed for G-20 protests are friends and colleagues, and while we still debate such tactics as "smashy smashy," I refuse to dissociate from them, and hope others who recognize who the real terrorists are will publicly refuse to do so as well.)

Going forward, perhaps we can take some lessons from the '50s by asking specific questions and naming government and state security agency behaviour for what it is. For example, we can point out that if the Harper government is serious about stopping terrorist plots, it needs to stop organizing them. Most terror trials of the past decade feature an RCMP or CSIS mole, without whom the plot would not have gone beyond the verbal posturing stage. The recent Via Rail plot in Toronto featured an FBI agent (and what was he doing working in Canada?) trying to keep two deluded individuals on the same page, while the B.C. pressure cooker plot, again, features an agent trying to keep his challenged co-conspirators focused on keeping the plot alive.

It would also be helpful to throw the terror term back at those who commit the grossest acts of violence on a daily basis, whether that be destruction of the environment, daily drone strikes, indiscriminate bombings from 10,000 feet, and complicity in torture, among others. Such a reframing proved incredibly successful in what the Toronto Star called one of the most significant political actions of the 1980s, when members of the Alliance for Nonviolent Action placed on trial the G7 leaders for crimes against humanity in advance of their Toronto summit in June 1988.

That summit -- designed to rubberstamp various pronouncements against terrorism (right down to the staged high-profile arrest of an alleged IRA member the night before the summit that turned out to be nothing more than a minor immigration violation -- again, sound familiar?) -- was the first time in North America world leaders had to meet behind a massive walled complex. The crimes of Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterand and others were detailed by ex-CIA agents as well as witnesses from Wounded Knee, apartheid South Africa, death squad dictatorships in Latin America, and the survivors of the jellyfish baby generation in the South Pacific (victims of open-air nuclear testing). Using the then-new Canadian war crimes legislation as a template, a people's jury found the G7 guilty of terrorism.

Turning the tables on the REAL terrorists

Following three remarkable days of testimony, lawyers went to court seeking to bar entry to the six visiting leaders, only to be informed that an order in council had been passed two months previously declaring immune from prosecution G7 leaders and their entourages. Faced with no other choice, thousands took to the streets in resistance to a ban on the march, and headed down a University Avenue full of thousands of police, rooftop snipers, barricades, and standby members of the Canadian Forces. "Arrest the REAL terrorists," they chanted, and over 200 people were busted for trying to carry out just such arrests. Two days later, fresh out of jail, many demonstrators returned to try and serve arrest warrants during an Art Gallery of Ontario luncheon, and were arrested again. All charges were dropped when the threat of turning the courtroom tables and putting the G7 on trial in a Canadian court seemed too politically dangerous.

As the debate opens on expanding the war in Iraq and possibly Syria this week, it is also worth remembering that current Canadian legislation exempts under anti-terror measures anything undertaken by the military. What does this exception tell us, other than that militarism and war is legalized terrorism? With that in mind, members of Homes not Bombs and other groups will descend on the annual massive weapons fair CANSEC 15 (a.k.a. Terrorfest15) for a 10-hour protest on Wednesday, May 27 in Ottawa. "We kill everything in sight, you don't even see us," proudly proclaimed a recent CANSEC exhibitor, with another government exhibitor, Defence R&D Canada, claiming their challenge is (like the same one faced by 9/11 hijackers): "Will technology allow us to fit 70 tons of lethality [killing power] into a 20 ton package?"

Other examples of resisting state-terrorism abound, and it is fitting on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery civil rights march to recall the true courage of those civil rights activists who, like Diane Nash, at a tender age filled out their wills before boarding Freedom Rides to protest the terror of segregation and lynchings, bombings, and assassinations then ruling the South via groups like the FBI-infiltrated Ku Klux Klan. Notably, Nash remains consistent in her understanding of terrorism: she refused to join the 50th-anniversary march because terrorists would be there (including ex-President George W. Bush and current terrorist-in-chief, Barack Obama, subject of a new lawsuit regarding his kill-list drone strikes).

Martin Luther King, murdered by the U.S. government (as found by a U.S. jury in 1999), would have had no trouble taking on the Harpers and Obamas and proudly accepting the term "radicalization" for the simple reason that radicalization is a good thing: it means to get to the root of a serious social problem and to do something transformative about it. Our reclaiming of that term prevents its gross misuse, as does reclaiming terms like militant, confrontation, and extremist. King famously wrote from a Birmingham jail that:

"though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

Let us go proudly forward as radicalized extremists for love, justice and solidarity with those unjustly targeted by state terror.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: James Vaughan/flickr

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