Here’s what heartens me about the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The common sense of ordinary people is starting to reassert itself. Back then, while in a state of shock, they were told by their intellectual and political superiors — pundits, academics, government leaders — that this was a clash of civilizations, a religious showdown, a war on terror or simply: Good against Evil. The proof, five years later, that common sense is back, is the wide rise of public opinion that dares to contradict those ongoing claims by experts and authorities.

Take two Canadian examples: last month’s poll that showed a majority in all parts of the country now think the Canadian military mission to Afghanistan is a mistake, and a survey released this week, by Leger Marketing, that found a similar majority saying U.S. foreign policy was primarily responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It takes confidence for average citizens to dissent from their opinion leaders on such matters.

Let me say a word for ordinary common sense as opposed to George W. Bush’s famed gut instincts. The problem with the President’s gut is that, when it utters an instinct, everyone around tends to say, Yeah boss, you’re right, and then, loudly to each other, He’s a genius! Ordinary folks have to check their instincts far more carefully and test them against experience, usually over an extended period of time, before putting trust in them.

How does common sense draw its conclusions? Take that rejection of the Afghanistan mission. I don’t think it’s due to the death toll among Canadian soldiers or a desire to “cut and run” — a self-serving explanation from the élites who got us there and need to justify themselves. I think most people sympathize with the goal of helping build Afghan society and with soldiers such as the late Mark Graham, who, a relative said, wanted to make something of his life (after already having been an Olympic athlete) and give something back.

People admire such impulses, as they respect soldiers who are there to escape poverty or get an education. But that’s the very reason for those back home — leaders and citizens — to take responsibility for not keeping soldiers on a foolhardy mission, if that’s what it turns out to be, rather than robotically supporting every operation they happen to be on.

What about the notion that U.S. foreign policy underlies 9/11 and related conflicts? How do people come to that? Personal analogy may play a part. You think about what it would be like to have powerful strangers enter your home or your space to take it over when things are ragged.

They profess good intentions but, after a while, you notice they aren’t leaving and things are getting worse, not better. You don’t really know their motives and you aren’t sure they do either. You start thinking you’d rather deal with your own problems. You don’t have illusions about things being perfect if they leave — you’d still have family conflicts, obnoxious neighbours and overbearing employers to deal with — but at least they’re familiar. You want them out.

A Quebec pollster commenting on that survey said foreign policy doesn’t usually affect Canadian elections. But I think things are less clear.

What about the free trade election of 1988? Wasn’t it about foreign policy, namely Canada-U.S. free trade? A plurality voted for it, but they may have kept watching U.S. behaviour afterward and decided that, for instance, our recent surrender on softwood lumber proves free trade wasn’t such a good deal after all. They draw conclusions about the U.S., and then apply those to Iraq or Afghanistan. They connect things internationally, just as they do in their own lives. It takes a while, that’s all.

One more complexity. The Leger poll found a majority of Canadians think that both U.S. policy and Islamic fundamentalism were “primarily” behind 9/11. Sounds contradictory — yet it’s true. Because in much of the world, Islamic fundamentalists now lead in opposing U.S. policies that large numbers object to. Polls are crude, they have a hard time reflecting that kind of intricacy. Public opinion, on the other hand, is slow, and it’s subtle.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.