The COVID-19 pandemic is still claiming lives around the world, sending many people to crowded hospitals and putting medical systems under unbearable strain. It is a scary, concerning and tragic situation.
However, with many of us confined at home, it is also a time to reflect on the fragility of the systems we live in, and perhaps learn from the mistakes and bad decisions that have been guiding many of the governments around the world, including Canada.
After the attacks of 9/11, the United States convinced its allies that the world is threatened by the presence of the terrorists, and urged them to join its “war on terror.” On September 20, 2001, in a national address, then-president George W. Bush famously declared: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make … Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” First came the attacks on Afghanistan and then followed the war in Iraq. The whole region never recovered from the military presence of the American troops and their allies.
Bush even incited Americans to go shopping and to visit Disney World. In a very simplistic and false dichotomy, he wanted to summarize those attacks as an attack on the way of lives of Americans — an attack of “barbarism” on civilization, an attack of people who hated freedom on those who cherished it. Every intellectual or commentator who tried to situate those attacks in a more geopolitical and multilayered context linked to American politics and interference in the Middle East was criticized and attacked as unpatriotic (remember the backlash against Susan Sontag).
The majority complied and the U.S. Patriot Act was passed to give extraordinary powers to the state for policing, surveillance and imprisonment of the most vulnerable groups, like immigrants and Muslims. Very rare were the voices who opposed this onslaught on the civil liberties. The motto was “less liberties for more security.”
From a mocked and belittled president when he was first elected, Bush became a sort of national hero, a semi-divine figure who would lead his country’s people to war: “This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win.”
Today, 18 years later, it is somehow ironic but worth noting that when the peace deal agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban started to make its way through the media, COVID-19 was accelerating its mortal pace around the world, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It was as if the implicit message to the U.S. government was that with one threat gone, a new one appeared.
In a report prepared by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, released last fall, we learned that the war on terror cost the U.S. economy US$6.4 trillion. 800,000 people died due to direct war violence, and several times as many died indirectly. Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting.
The figures for Canada are not easy to find. Nevertheless, the same report indicates that “Canada spent an estimated $18 billion on fighting and reconstruction in Afghanistan, but there is no comprehensive figure on other costs.”
Also, the same report notes:
“a Parliamentary Budget Office report estimated in 2015 that the cost of providing financial support to Afghanistan veterans would total $157 million by 2025, discounting (in part due to lack of data) health care, pharmaceuticals and rehabilitation services. Disability benefits to Canadian combat veterans for a single year of military operations were projected to cost $145.2 million over nine years.”
Canada was not as directly impacted by the attacks of 9/11. Among the 2973 victims, only 24 were Canadians. Of course, these are lost human lives and their families were devastated, but it wasn’t a direct terrorist attack that hit Canada. Despite this matter, the Canadian Parliament hastily passed in 2001 the Antiterrorism Act that mainly and tragically affected the lives of Canada’s Muslim community (representing barely three per cent of the population). It affected their jobs, economic situations, travels, civil liberties, families, children and integration in the Canadian social fabric.
The Canadian government also joined the war on terror because of the pressure from the U.S. government and because the RCMP and Canadian intelligence institutions understood that their lack of co-operation with their American counterparts would put their existence and relevancy in jeopardy. In the last two decades, those institutions saw their budgets and powers increase. In 2008, and because the Canadian government didn’t want to reveal the cost of extra security measures introduced after 9/11, CBC found that $24 billion was spent by the federal government on security measures since 9/11. In 2008, the RCMP’s annual budget rose by close to $1 billion since 2001, and the budget of Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, nearly doubled.
Were those increase justified? Not as much as they were portrayed by some politicians. There was never any evidence that showed those additional funds helped secure the lives of Canadians. In Canada, terrorist risks, understood here as emanating from the Muslim community, were not particularly higher than in any other part of the world. In 2018, Public Safety Canada wrote in its annual assessment “the principal terrorist threat to Canada and Canadian interests continues to be that posed by individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ).”
Despite the increasing violence and the flourishing of white supremacist groups, those institutions are still frozen in the post-9/11 mentality, trying to milk the threats posed by the “usual suspects.”
Successive Liberal and Conservative governments accepted those increases in defence, surveillance and police budgets. But there was never an open public debate about the relevance of the Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan that cost at least $18 billion, the death of 158 soldiers and more than 1,800 wounded. It is still a taboo. The late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party who courageously dared to suggest in 2006 in the House of Commons that Canada should negotiate with the Taliban was derided by other political parties as “Taliban Jack.“
False and misleading parallels were always drawn in the media and by politicians between the role of Canada in the liberation of Europe in the Second World War, and its implication in the war in Afghanistan. There was nothing in common between those two conflicts: the stakes were totally different. Unfortunately, the media and some politicians used the same rhetoric to justify a bad decision dictated by American politics and not by the interests of Canadians.
The war on terror in Canada and in the U.S. wasn’t financed through higher personal taxes or more contributions from business. Rather, it was funded through additional borrowing and higher debts and interests. Over the last decades, Canada’s public finances kept worsening and federal and provincial governments kept slashing health budgets, education and social programs. Everybody was asked to make sacrifices. They sold us an illusory sense of safety by looking always at the same misleading source of danger, terrorism, while ignoring other dangers.
Our participation in the war on terror gave us tunnel vision, where the threats were artificially maintained and inflated, while all other dangers were dismissed or diminished. Health budgets, education funding and support for infrastructure, social housing and scientific research were always the last of the priorities of our governments. Those services were the sacrificial lambs in order to participate in the war on terror.
Today, with the high spread of COVID-19 and the increasing number of fatalities, provincial governments wake up to a sad reality. The hospitals are in need of masks and ventilators; nurses and doctors are overworked; schools are not equipped with online resources that would have made it easier to keep children educated while schools are closed.
COVID-19 is revealing the naked priorities of our governments. When Trudeau announced money to help Canadians laid off because of the crisis, and to give a fiscal break to small businesses, he is not being nice and charitable. These are overdue measures that should have been taken decades ago. Perhaps the situation of Canadians today would have been less vulnerable, and our health systems would have been more prepared to face this pandemic.
If COVID-19 has any positive message, I see it as making us reassess our personal priorities and policies as a country. Maybe it is time to tell ourselves — without being accused of being a terrorist apologist, a socialist or just naive — that the war on terror was a bad decision, and that instead we should have invested those billions of dollars in health, education and the most vulnerable in our society.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. In 2017, she published Hope Has Two Daughters, a novel about the Arab Spring. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog.
Editor’s note, March 27, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of a former U.S. president. He is George W. Bush, not Georges.