These are dark times, but we will bear them

People are sad, and frightened, and angry, and with good reason.

On Tuesday, ISIS carried out a coordinated attack in Brussels. More than 30 people are  dead and more than 200 people have been injured after three separate bomb blasts.

Just over a week ago, a car bomb in Ankara killed at least 32 people.

A week prior to that, an ISIS truck bomb killed at least 60 people in Baghdad.

Just over a month prior to that, Boko Haram attacked a village in Nigeria. At least 86 people were killed, many of them children. I cannot even fathom the horror described by witnesses who said they heard children screaming as they burned to death in their fire-bombed homes.

Sadly, only the attacks on Brussels have seemed to be major headline news in the west, but you get the picture. These are dark times.

In the wake of these atrocities, isolationism, xenophobia, fear-mongering, and hate dominate the airwaves. The western world is glued to their screens. Everyone wants to feel safe. Everyone wants to make sure It Won’t Happen to Them. Donald Trump (arguably the most egotistical, bigoted, openly misogynistic and proudly ignorant presidential candidate of my lifetime) has a very good chance at becoming the next president of the United States, and we are ignoring many other immediate and pressing concerns (like the already-occurring and widespread devastation of climate change) in our obsession with the much smaller possibility of harm at the hands of a terrible few.

These are dark times. Absolutely. There is no other way to describe them. So many horrible things have happened in the past couple of years that the satirical website The Onion has published a very sad, cynical piece entitled World Makes Final Attempt To Try To Understand This Shit, and I read it and thought to myself, yep, that’s exactly how I feel. These are dark times indeed, and 2016 has already been marked as a dark year.

That said, ten years ago, in 2006, the U.S. was waging unsuccessful war in Iraq. Iran announced they’d be enriching uranium. Both North Korea and India were testing missiles. In Mumbai, more than 200 people were killed when a series of bombs exploded on commuter trains during rush hour. Israel and Hezbollah were firing rockets at each other. And a man in Pennsylvania shot and killed five Amish schoolgirls execution-style before turning the gun on himself. Dark times.

In 1996, two years after the Rwandan genocide that resulted in the murder of more than 500 000 Tutsis, Hutu refugees in Zaire (unable to return to Rwanda for fear of retributive violence), were finding themselves caught in the middle of a Tutsi-Hutu civil war and cut off from medical and food supplies. A U.S. base in Saudi Arabia was bombed, resulting in the deaths of 19 servicemen. Britons were panicking following the outbreak of Mad Cow disease. In Canada, a  man named Mark Chahal shot and killed nine of his relatives before killing himself, and the last Canadian residential school was closed only that year. Dark times.

In 1986, a West Berlin discotheque called La Belle was bombed, killing 3 and injuring 230. Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant melted down, poisoning  the region and spewing radioactive particles into the atmosphere. In Oklahoma, a United States Postal Service employee named Patrick Sherrell killed 14 of his co-workers before shooting himself. This incident was the first of several shootings at US post offices that were the inspiration for the slang term “going postal”.

1976 – 12 bombs planted by the IRA exploded in London. An earthquake killed more than 22 000 people in Guatemala and Honduras. Air France Flight 139 was hijacked. The Cambodian genocide, orchestrated and carried out by the Khmer Rouge, was ongoing.

1966 – The United States military was intervening (unsuccessfully) in Vietnam. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was beginning in China.  Planes were crashing. There were floods, massacres, and military coups.

1956 – Actually, all things considered this seemed like a pretty good year.  But you see where I’m going with this. 1946 – the world was recovering and rebuilding after the death and destruction of WWII, and was also being forced to confront the atrocities of the Holocaust, which the world’s major powers had done little to prevent.  1936 – storm clouds were gathering over Europe as Nazi Germany flexed its military muscle. 1926 – both Al Capone and Benito Mussolini were surviving assassination attempts. 1916 – Europe was in its third calendar year of the First World War, which had ushered in the era of mechanized warfare and resulted in unprecedented carnage and loss of human life.

I’m actually NOT trying to be depressing right now. I’m trying to demonstrate that we have ALWAYS lived in dark times. Sometimes, the epicentre of the darkness was far away. Sometimes, it was on our doorstep. The past hundred years have brought a non-stop parade of cruelty, misery, and untold suffering.

But we’re still here. If anything, a cursory glance at some of the headlines of the past century (which I was able to review and compile with the help of Wikipedia, CNN.com, and the online encyclopedia/almanac Infoplease) should be ample evidence not only of the inevitability of darkness, grief, and trouble in our lives, but also of our resilience. All this terrible shit has happened and we’re still here.

It is true that in many cases, the conflict or attack or natural disaster was happening “over there” somewhere, and that the terrorist attacks in Brussels (or the deadly attacks in Paris last year) have brought these “dark times” closer to home. Many of us are very fortunate. Many of us have had the luxury of growing up without the constant threat of violence, and now we must consider our lives in the context of proximity to violence, and we must consider the possibility of losing our loved ones and having our worlds shattered.

But in many ways we already do. It’s true that most of us here in Canada have not lost a loved one to a terrorist attack, but most of us have lost someone to cancer. Or to an accident. Or to mental illness. At an individual level, there are horrible, senseless, seemingly unbearable things happening to and around us all of the time. And you know what?

We bear them. Even when we think we could never possibly bear them, we do.

We bear them. We pick up the pieces and we carry on, maybe for the sake of our families, maybe because we have hope for a better future, maybe because we don’t know what else to do but keep putting one foot in front of the other. And many of us still find happiness–maybe not all the time, but sometimes. And that is wonderful.

My heart aches for those who lost people they loved in Brussels, and Ankara, and Baghdad, and Nigeria, and everywhere else around the world that is experiencing violence in these dark times. Because they are dark, and I am frightened, and I need something to hold on to.

So I will hold on to this: these have always been dark times. And we will bear them, hopefully, with compassion and humanity. And we will NOT give up on the human race and we will keep putting one foot in front of the other the way our parents did and our grandparents did and our great-grandparents did and our great-great-grandparents did, and maybe maybe maybe as we go we will wear the darkness down under our feet, little by little, and someday the path we tread (or that our children’s children’s children tread) will be a little lighter.

And that’s all I’ve got.

"Hope", an allegorical painting by George Frederic Watts

“Hope”, an allegorical painting by George Frederic Watts

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On the Paris Attacks: How Flowers Really Do Protect Us

flowerDrawing

I don’t need to tell you what happened in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015. The merciless and coordinated terrorist attack that left 129 people dead and 368 wounded already has its own Wikipedia entry. Though this attack follows on the heels of a deadly suicide bomb attack in Beirut, and even though Boko Haram killed more people last year than ISIS (earning itself the horrible distinction of being the world’s deadliest terrorist organization), Paris’ popularity as a tourist destination, and its importance in western culture, brought the threat of terror and the reality of the long reach ISIS’ ideological hatred very close to home. Although it is not right of us, we are used to bad things happening, “over there”, and it is simply not very present in many of our minds. But Paris is another story–to many of us, Paris (among other famous European cities like London or Rome) is an icon of cultural achievement and western civilization. It is the City of Light, of art, of romance–it’s a place we go.

So we felt the deaths of those killed in Paris more keenly than we feel the deaths of people in Beirut. Like I said, this is not right–but it is an emotional fact that I am experiencing myself. We know things are bad in Syria and Iraq (obviously, or there wouldn’t be so many refugees risking life and limb to leave), we know other countries around the world are facing instability and threats, and many of us feel sorrow or worry or a need to help, but Paris shook us to our cores.

I’m sure many of us have responded with fear. Many have responded with hatred, and have expressed a desire for revenge, either through violence (“Let’s bomb the shit out of them!”) or through a refusal to offer aid to refugees fleeing civil war and ISIS (“We don’t want them here–they’re going to murder us!”). Hearts have hardened and reason has taken a back seat–many Canadians (including Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall) either don’t know or don’t care that none of the attackers have been identified as Syrian refugees, or that the refugees who will be re-settled in Canada have gone through, and will go through, many high-level security screenings. Some people barely gave a moment of thought to the actual victims in Paris before they started in on the Islamophobic vitriol, so eager were they to express their hatred and fear (almost gleeful, it seems, to have an excuse).

But many have responded with compassion instead–recognizing that refugees from Syria are running from exactly the same people who threaten us. My own resolve remains firm–it was simply luck that I was born in Canada; that doesn’t make me better than anyone born somewhere else, and that doesn’t give me the right to deny them what my grandparents and great-grandparents were given–a safe home that still has so much room for more. Many groups and individuals across Canada are extending their hand and sponsoring refugees, and this is a wonderful thing.

But I am also sad, and scared, and what I want to feel more than anything right now is hope. Which is why this little video clip, of a Parisian father talking to his son, is such a comfort to me:

[Some very silly folks, after watching this video, felt the need to comment that flowers can’t physically protect people from guns–as if we didn’t know! But I don’t feel that the boy’s father was lying. If we honour the dignity of the dead rather than broadcast the hideousness of their killers, if we lay down flowers instead of taking up arms, these gestures will protect what is most valuable in us–our spirit, and our humanity. A people that is physically and materially safe but is violent, suspicious, and cruel, is no people at all.]

We need to remember that children are watching us. The more we fear-monger and hate the more frightened and powerless they will feel. We cannot, hard as we try, guarantee that nothing bad will happen, but we can show them that it is possible to live without fear (even if we ourselves are afraid). We can show them the beauty and goodness that is in the world. We need to do this for them. And I think we need to do it for ourselves too.

 

I’m more afraid of C-51 than terrorists

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.

w-moose_s-2It 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.