I often find it hard to feel empathy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But when I saw the grim picture of him talking on the phone following the end of his confinement in the locked down House of Commons yesterday, I sensed in him a vulnerability he rarely exhibits. Harper, like his fellow MPs, Parliamentary staff, media, visitors and children in the downstairs daycare, had likely hunkered down behind locked doors, no doubt traumatized by uncertainty when an armed gunman entered the building. Because no one knew who the gunman was after, all were potential targets. For half a day, everyone on lockdown no doubt felt the fear, despair, sadness and fragile sense of mortality that people in Iraq and Syria have experienced daily for decades, an extra punch of which they will soon receive at the hands of Canadian CF-18 bombers.
It’s the kind of trauma not to be wished upon anyone, and I hope all affected will get the kind of counselling and therapeutic support necessary to deal with what may emerge as multiple cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), otherwise known as the condition that you get denied proper treatment for when you are a returning Canadian military veteran.
Like those in Afghanistan who suffered 13 years of Canadian bombardment (upwards of a billion Canadian bullets fired), night raids, transfers to torture, and the daily indignities of life under military occupation, those Parliamentarians with the power to declare war — and send somebody else overseas to fight it for them — felt, in a relatively limited fashion, what it’s like for millions of the world’s war-weary populations. The image of a cowering John Baird or Jason Kenney hiding in a barricaded office must have proven a stark contrast to the swaggering, macho manner in which these men urged Canada to declare war on ISIS, further fuelling the flames of fear and hatred against Muslims.
Thankfully, most of yesterday’s hostages to violence in Parliament went home last night to warm houses with showers, uninterrupted electricity supply, food in the fridge, and the knowledge that this horror is unlikely to happen tomorrow and four or five times for the remainder of the month or periodically for the rest of their lives. But had this happened in Iraq, such relative safety would not be guaranteed, in part due to Canada’s role in obliterating that nation’s economy, electricity and water supply, and health-care system, first though intensive bombing in 1991, military enforcement of a decade’s worth of brutal sanctions that killed a million Iraqis, and renewed support and participation in the 2003 invasion that was made possible by Canadian weapons, technical components, navy personnel and equipment, embedded troops, and high-ranking military officials. It was also out of Iraq’s torturing prisons during the occupation that numerous ISIS leaders emerged.
The tragic murder of a young Canadian reservist and the Parliamentary shootout was all the more shocking because of its sudden, seemingly out-of-the-blue fashion. In the same way, on a daily basis in tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, children in schools, celebrants at weddings, and other individuals and families are suddenly, shockingly killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a remote control-operated drone, likely with the Canadian-built targeting camera courtesy of L-3 Wescam in Burlington, Ontario.
What is being treated as Canada’s 9/11 is a day that recalls the comments made half a century ago by the great Malcolm X, who commented that the assassination of President Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” a result of a “climate of hate” fostered by a U.S. political and corporate establishment regularly overthrowing governments and assassinating (or plotting against) a variety of leaders from Patrice Lumumba to Fidel Castro. At the time, Malcolm X was vilified for speaking the truth, one that America was not ready to accept, just as many Canadians may be unwilling to do now.
Indeed, how many Canadians reading that last paragraph would step back and say, “That’s them, not us”? The horrible sound of gunfire in Parliament must have sounded a small bit of like some opening moments during the Canadian-supported coup against the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, one of many coups Canada has given support to (including more recently the coups in Honduras, Egypt, Haiti, etc.). One reporter gasped that it was simply incongruous to see SWAT teams escorting her through the Parliament in which she worked, and yet Canadian policy throughout much of the world forces her counterparts to walk that ring of heavily armed men on a daily basis.
Rather than viewing yesterday’s tragic events as a wake-up call to seriously examine Canada’s negative role on the world stage and the inevitable “climate of hate” to which we are contributing, we can expect nothing less than a ride on the Platitude Express, which embarked within minutes of the first bullets being fired.
The Platitude Express
From endless references to the “loss of innocence” to the pronouncements that “things will never be the same” (especially in the “hallowed halls” of Parliament), we are witnessing the cranking up of our self-loving myth machine into high gear.
In this climate, do not expect our finest hour. Yesterday’s events will be used as the springboard to call for greater militarization of the national culture and justification for unending war against ISIL/ISIS or any other convenient enemy-du-jour. This will lead to further increases in war spending, despite the fact that the War Dept. was supposed to come up with $2 billion in cuts. The wars in Ukraine and Iraq — costs for which are being kept secret, without much protest — will easily double that. These events will also be used to attack anyone who questions Canada’s role in wars past or present.
New repressive laws
The events of yesterday will likely also have a congealing impact on Parliamentarians who, understandably, shared a trauma together. Wednesday was supposed to be the Harper government’s opportunity to unleash a new round of legislative measures designed to give CSIS and the RCMP even more freedom to trade information with torturers, monitor people overseas, take part in extraordinary rendition programs, and be completely immune from prosecution and oversight by the creation of a special class privilege that would assert the right of CSIS agents and informers not to be questioned about their activities in any court of law, public or secret.
But after yesterday, what opposition leader who wants to appear prime ministerial will feel comfortable saying no to such an agenda? The Conservatives will no doubt frame the issue with the familiar refrain, “you’re either with the terrorists or against them.”
Perhaps the most immediate impact will be felt in certain communities targeted for racial and religious profiling. While Canadian soldiers have been told to stay indoors and not show themselves in public, individuals of South Asian or Middle Eastern heritage, and certainly anyone who may be a Muslim or perceived as one, may have second thoughts about being out in public. These communities will be the subject of demands from the media and some “community leaders” to “out” radicalized young people, to call in “suspicious” behavior (undefined), and to report their neighbours to CSIS or the Mounties. They will find greater difficulty travelling, and they will learn first-hand about something called the Passenger Protect Program (or no-fly list).
This is especially so since, while we do not know much about the shooter, media have been quick to point out that although he was a Canadian, he was of “Algerian” heritage, and a recent convert to Islam. Both are completely irrelevant factors, but so commonly part of the daily anti-terror discourse that no second thought is given to the consequences of bringing it up.
The game is no longer far away
Glenn Greenwald adequately summed things up by asking why Canada, a nation that has been at war for 13 years and counting, would be shocked that someone might actually (however unjustifiably), do what he felt was needed to fight back. But as a country that wages war but has never suffered from war the way Russia or France or Syria or Iraq have, we have always been insulated against the consequences of our actions, buoyed by a mythology that allows us to wear Canadian flags on backpacking trips through Europe.
By day’s end, Harper addressed the nation, his discourse unchanged from the bellicose rumblings of last week as he rammed through a Parliamentary vote to bomb Iraq and Syria: “Canada will never be intimidated…redouble our efforts…savagery…no safe haven…”
After a long day focused on these gripping events in the nation’s capital, I have to wonder if this direct experience of fear and trauma will force us to examine our own addiction to violence as the solution to conflict. Yesterday provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our insidious contribution to the climate of hate, and the chance to disengage from our increasingly militarized culture.
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: Ashwin Kumar/flickr