Let’s get one thing straight: I am definitely afraid of terrorists, and I am afraid of militant religious fundamentalists like ISIS. Images of terrified men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before masked militants, knowing they’re going to be beheaded in gruesome fashion and that the whole world (including their families) will be able to see video footage of it on the internet, fills me with a revulsion and a sense of panic that I must make a conscious and sustained effort to keep in check.
But I do keep it in check, and it is important to keep it in check. Because thankfully, in the whole entire population of the earth there are really very few people who want to hurt me simply for not believing what they believe, and it is quite likely that I will never actually know of anyone who has concrete plans to. Of course I am afraid that I, or someone I love, might be the victim of a terrorist attack. If you watch, read, or listen to the news, it’s hard not to be. But in order to live a full and happy life, I need to try not to be afraid, and it really shouldn’t be that hard, given the odds human beings already live with (illness, accidents, etc.).
What I mean is, I acknowledge that there are terrorists out there. I acknowledge that there are people committing atrocious and murderous acts in the name of religion or politics or personal revenge. I hope upon hope upon hope that neither I nor anyone I love will ever come into contact with any of them. But at the same time I acknowledge that the rest of us, whether Muslim or Christian, Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative or pacifist or gun-lovin’, are, if not perfect human beings, at least not in any kind of mind to kill innocent strangers. We don’t need to be watched. We don’t need to be bullied into not being terrorists. And we, in Canada, certainly don’t need a bill with powers as sweeping and unregulated as bill C-51 (the Harper government’s new Anti-Terrorism Act, not to be confused with the bill C-51 of 2008, which made amendments to the Canadian Food and Drugs Act).
If you want to know why I am against bill C-51, despite the fact that I, like most people, really don’t want Canada to experience any terrorist attacks in the future, the BC Civil Liberties Association has compiled an excellent list that pretty much sums it up.
Of their eight points of serious concern, two really stand out for me:
Bill C-51 drastically expands the definition of ‘security.’
When you think of being secure, you likely think of being safe from physical danger. But Bill C-51 defines security as not only safeguarding public safety, but also preventing interference with various aspects of public life or ‘the economic or financial stability of Canada’. With this definition, a demonstration in favour of Quebec separatism that fails to procure the proper permit, environmentalists obstructing a pipeline route or a peaceful blockade of a logging road by an Indigenous community could all be seen as threats to national security.
It will severely chill freedom of expression.
It’s unclear even to experts exactly what kinds of speech and protest activity may be considered threats to national security if the bill passes; the average Canadian has little hope of feeling confident that their legitimate political activity hasn’t inadvertently crossed the line. Bill C-51’s expansive language means that Canadians will likely choose not to express themselves even in completely legal ways rather than risk prosecution. Legitimate speech will be chilled, and our democracy will be worse off for it.
Last autumn, I went up to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and joined those protesting Kinder Morgan’s drilling and testing activities (FYI, Kinder Morgan is a wealthy, Texas-based oil company that wants to put an oil pipeline through a conservation park on Burnaby Mountain). At the time, I seriously deliberated “crossing the line” (i.e. crossing the police tape that surrounded the Kinder Morgan work site and therefore voluntarily accepting arrest for violating a court injunction). In the end, I held back, afraid of what the minimal, but still very real, legal consequences could do to my future ability to travel, pursue various career avenues, etc.
If bill C-51 passes in its current form, with its current vague and broad definition of what constitutes Canada’s “security”, it would be entirely possible and dare I say likely that a pipeline project like Kinder Morgan’s would be considered essential to Canada’s “economic security”. Those who crossed the line into Kinder Morgan’s work site, or who organized civil disobedience activities designed to delay or halt pipeline construction, wouldn’t necessarily be treated merely as trespassers in contempt of a court order; it’s probable they would be considered a threat to Canada’s security and imprisoned as terrorists. More than a hundred brave people crossed the line last fall (and, in a strange turn of events, charges were dropped for most of them as Kinder Morgan had designated the boundaries of the injunction site incorrectly). They asserted their rights as Canadian citizens to go wherever they wanted in a public park, and to defend values they believed in. Very few will cross the line once C-51 is passed, and the Harper government knows this.
The government knows too that people are afraid of terrorism the way I have described being afraid, but instead of calming our fears, instead of exhibiting leadership and refusing to sacrifice our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to knee-jerk anti-Islamic sentiment, they are busy stoking it, counting on it to distract people from the state of the economy and the quagmire tar sands development (the cornerstone of Harper’s economic policy) finds itself in. In short, Harper is counting on our fear (and the thinly-veiled racism lurking beneath it), to win him the next election.
From Maclean’s Martin Patriquin’s article “Stephen Harper and the niqab gambit“:
Since the terrorist attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the Prime Minister has taken to peppering his speeches with the words “jihad” and “terrorism,” whether speaking in Montreal or British Columbia or Brisbane, Australia.
[Remember who else liked to pepper his speeches with words about terrorism? Was it George W Bush? Oh, that’s right, it was. And what did he want? To invade Iraq. And did he find any weapons of mass destruction there? No, he did not. And are America’s actions implicated in ISIS’s current ability to sweep across that destabilized country? You bet.]
The Prime Minister’s recent declaration of “offense” at the idea of a veiled woman taking the Citizenship Oath (even after privately verifying her identity with a government agent), is all part and parcel of his ploy to bring out the worst in us–fearful, xenophobic, irrational–and to exploit these negative qualities for political gain (his caucus, for its part, are doing a good job flying the xenophobic flag, hence Conservative MP Larry Miller’s comment that women who want to wear niqabs when taking the Oath should “stay the hell where [they] came from”) . I’m not convinced that Stephen Harper is truly afraid that a Canadian-born jihadist group will carry out a large-scale attack in Canada, but I know he wants us to be.
The fact of the matter is, we are literally one thousand times more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident (inferred from the statistics cited in the Maclean’s article above) than by a home-grown terrorist. Notice that Harper is not giving CSIS sweeping powers to make us drive more carefully.
It should also be noted that as Canadians, we are (as noted in Scott Gilmore’s “How to end the fear economy“) more likely to be killed by a MOOSE than by a terrorist. Curious that I haven’t seen any government MPs gravely intoning that moose dwell in every Canadian forest, lurking along every highway. Considering I was in a close shave involving a car and a moose two Christmases ago (we were very lucky to have been going fairly slowly and only to gently nudge its hind leg with our side-view mirror), I’d be interested to know what Harper is going to do about the very real threat of moose-caused vehicular fatalities.
Answer: nothing. Because bill C-51, as currently written, isn’t about keeping Canadians safe. If it were, Conservative MPs sitting on the committee reviewing the bill would be listening to the very legitimate concerns of environmental and civil liberties activists, Muslim groups, and constitutional experts about the serious and democracy-eroding ramifications of the bill in its current state. Instead, Conservative committee members are asking their expert witnesses if they are terrorists (the argument being that if you weren’t a terrorist, you wouldn’t be worried about this bill). If the Harper government ACTUALLY cared about keeping people safe, they would hold an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and they would look into long-standing claims that tar sands activity has negatively impacted the safety of food and water in Albertan communities. But they aren’t doing any of these things.
Because the government doesn’t care about keeping Canadians safe. With bill C-51 and the government’s focus on “jihad” and “Islamic extremism”, it’s clearly all about playing on the politics of fear, and on the racism rooted in these fears. With its broad and sweeping powers in terms of surveillance, search, and seizure (CSIS only needing to make sure they don’t kill anyone or “violate their sexual integrity”), bill C-51 is also about making dissenting Canadians afraid–afraid to speak out, afraid to protest, afraid to question rather than immediately condemn that which the government calls a “threat”.
Harper wants his voting base to be afraid of terrorists. And he wants the rest of us to be afraid of him. And it’s working.