If truth is the first casualty in war, I guess we can now say humour is the second. Poor Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect continues to be pilloried in the U.S., from the White House down, for bravely raising questions on what cowardice and bravery are. Jay Leno, David Letterman and Saturday Night Live agonize over how hard it is to be funny in times like these, and do they dare?

Up here, Rick Mercer withdrew his Gemini nomination for his hilarious interviews with Americans — at exactly the time when pointing out general ignorance in the U.S. about the rest of the world would be a public service. On the upside, Frank magazine has not shirked its duty to deal with the grim realities, nor has the American humour mag The Onion (“Hugging up 76,000%”, “U.S. urges bin Laden to form nation it can attack”).

Many of us tend to associate funny with smart and, on that basis, I nominate as the third casualty thought itself, especially when it’s sharp and critical. Listen to this call not to think from the National Post: “If we are to be a reliable partner … our ruling caste must disabuse itself of the fallacy that to be a good Canadian, one must be skeptical or even hostile to America.” Must not be skeptical — when thinking about a crucial national issue? Yet I’d say it’s a widespread sentiment, judging by reader mail. Beyond the usual thoughtful disagreements, I’m hearing a new note that says not You’re dead wrong, but How dare you even raise these questions?

It’s as if a set of official propositions has been laid down: We are good. They are evil. It’s a war. Only one side can survive. No other factors or analysis apply. Those who don’t accept these propositions are fools or worse. Anyone skeptical about these articles of faith, better watch it. I’m not saying the mood is universal — happily it isn’t — but it’s out there.

I asked a friend from a Catholic background why this mood has taken hold. She said it’s obviously a religious response of a primitive or fundamentalist type. People who feel panic, fear or terror often seize on simple beliefs and cling to them. Beliefs are potent, yet they are precarious — precisely because they are often held either without or despite any evidence. Those who hold them don’t want to hear questions or doubts, because it will shake that tenuous security. This doesn’t just happen with religion, nor is this the only form religion takes; rather, it’s about the role played by simplistic beliefs at harsh moments.

Thought is the enemy of other forms of simplistic belief, too, such as racial or cultural generalizations. So it’s not surprising that the latter tend to re-emerge in times like these. Robert Fulford wrote that: “Muslims show a greater propensity for war than any of the other disputatious civilizations now competing.” A propensity for war? Among 1.3-billion different people? Margaret Wente said, “Anti-Semitism is so entrenched throughout the Muslim world that no peace settlement will ever quench it.” Ever? Aside from the past fifty years, the record of the Muslim world on Jews is probably far better than the Christian one. A National Post editorial found it both “hard to get worked up about the occasional slur” aimed at Muslims and “something offensive about the tear-drenched press releases issued by North American Muslim organizations.” Presumably, it’s less hard if your daily routines, such as driving your cab or going shopping, have become easier to abandon than to carry through.

Thought is also the enemy of radical terror, like suicide bombings. Think about the five-page letter apparently found among hijacker Mohammed Atta’s belongings, a dual checklist of practical measures (“check out your weapon”) and ways to ward off doubt (“remember: it is a raid for the sake of Allah”). Shakespeare dealt a lot with this function of thought. Macbeth and Hamlet have disabling doubts not before they decide to act violently but between then and the deed. T. S. Eliot wrote:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

Recently, journalist Andrea Curtis spoke sadly about what she sees as the best-case scenario for the fix we’re in. That’s when the Bush government, despite mirroring the rhetoric of their foe (Good versus Evil etc.) acts coolly, as it’s doing, and avoids the descent into devastation (massive retaliation followed by more terror followed by …). But the price we pay is vast restriction of our freedoms and suppression of debate, in the name of the war against terror. The critique of globalization gets cut off, for instance, and so do Bill Maher’s wry cracks. Neither has anything to do with terror, but it’s almost impossible for those in power to resist the chance to stifle protest and advance their agenda.

It’s the Cold War all over again, when “anti-communism” was used to shut down almost all opposition, at home and abroad. What can we do except: Keep thinking, keep doubting, grit your teeth and laugh right through them.


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.