It seems that the aftershocks of September 11, 2001 have fostered a mass regression into primitive chopped logic among many commentators and government officials, both here in Canada and in the U.S.
If one criticizes the Taliban, for example, it is understood as support for giving the Americans carte blanche to “bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age.” On the other hand, suggesting that America should step back and reflect before launching an all-out attack, so as not to have more innocent people killed, is translated as endorsing the heinous crimes of September 11, perhaps even implying that America deserved what it got.
Regrettably, that is the kind of tortured rationale we’re hearing in the place of serious discussion about why these terrible attacks occurred in the first place; morality and simple good sense are being drowned out by the increasing pitch of war rhetoric.
And this comes mostly from the U.S. government, which also spends millions of dollars annually to fund social science research to find underlying reasons why the majority of American citizens on death row in U.S. jails are not trained in any trade, come from poor inner-city neighbourhoods, are primarily brought up in broken families, have low literacy and self-esteem, are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and suffer from a long list of related social and psychological ills. No one has ever suggested that such research into the why and how of their criminal acts means that the U.S. government is condoning or supporting murderers.
Yet since September 11, we hear increasingly arbitrary distinctions being made between ourselves in the West as sole “victims” and those who perpetrated the tragedies as “enemies,” with no shades of understanding in-between. Listen to the general theme prevailing among numerous post-disaster commentaries, and you’ll hear repeated categorical statements asserting that: “we” are civilized, “they” are barbarians; “we” are innocent, “they” are guilty; “we” are good, “they” are evil, and so on, ad nauseam. Such gross oversimplification would get a failing grade in any first-year political science course.
Detailed variants on this theme are no better: “It is not just Americans in the United States who were targets, but the West as a whole”; “The target is really our Western values of freedom, democracy and tolerance”; “The West must launch a Crusade against this Jihad”; “The barbarians are at our gates”; or, “We are on the brink of an inter-continental war.” The fallacious logic offered in support of such rhetoric is frightening and supremely dangerous.
Politicians and geopolitical pundits who take refuge in such all-or-nothing judgments are not in the least subtle or reflective. What they’re looking for is an easy moral rationale for using whatever force is available in order to destroy the “enemy” — whatever, or whoever, that may be. It does not matter to these people whether they aim at individuals, groups, or countries.
Given the prevailing mood of anger and thirst for revenge, it seems there is a near-consensus among pro-war factions that the time is now ripe for the U.S. to seek and destroy all forces in the world that its leaders perceive as hostile — in other words, all who are “not with us.”
But terrorism is radically dissimilar to the traditional foes of yesteryear. Terrorism is a multi-faceted, elastic crime, committed by individuals, groups, or states. It leaps out without warning, inflicting brutal violence against innocent civilians, against humanity’s weakest and most vulnerable. It is outside the practical and conceptual framework of any previous battlefield. It knows no effective borders.
Think about it. Were any prominent “expert” commentators or politicians calling for resignations from the heads of the CIA or FBI in the days following September 11?
Were voices of influence raised immediately to point out that airport security personnel in both Canada and the U.S. are chronically overworked, underpaid, poorly trained, and hired by profit-hungry private companies? How long did it take before anyone with policy-making power addressed the long-overdue issue of making all such security workers federal employees?
With so much security “repair” left undone at home, the U.S. is still poised at the brink of a deadly war “to smoke out” prime suspect Osama bin Laden. What it could end up with instead is an inflamed multinational conflict of incalculable magnitude — a war without a foreseeable end or military solution, but with a sure expectation of untold “collateral” (human) damage.
Innocent or guilty, the elusive bin Laden could still give himself up to an international court, thus saving the lives of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. But such questions are not being widely debated in the public arena.
Instead, September 11, 2001 has revealed the existence of a large global minority population — Muslims, Arabs and other visible minorities — representing the West’s latest “enemy civilization.”
Some, however, are remembering the abhorrent mistreatment (by both Canada and the U.S.) of their Japanese citizens in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. But has the counter-campaign against terrorism backlash been enough? Has Canada’s political leadership done all it can to protect vulnerable minorities, especially Canadian Muslims and Arabs, and all those who are mistaken for them?
Only this week, a Nepean Ont. teenager was so brutally beaten in a local park that his body could not be identified on sight. Will other potential victims follow?
Yet there seems to be a persistent background attitude here, implying that the protection of our vulnerable minorities is somehow inconsistent with mobilizing for war. After all, the main message from Ottawa seems to read: Americans must fight hostile forces around the world and it will be a difficult war, but a necessary one.
Make no mistake; we live in a very frightening period of history indeed, one in which the U.S. government seems to lack the political imagination to understand either the roots of its conflict, or the means by which to respond.
But we, as Canadians, should be different. We have been celebrated the world over as a nation that believes in promoting world peace with justice; we are known as effective peacemakers, catalysts for understanding, reconciliation, hope and healing.
Thus Canada’s leaders could be of much greater help by launching their own “operation hope.” First, they should encourage our friends to the south to slow down, consider, and reflect; then they should collaborate on a long range positive and healing response. And finally, perhaps it is we who can persuade the war-mongers on both sides of the border that everyone needs a collective cooling-down period — before launching into actions that cannot be reversed.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.