The arrest of 17 alleged terrorists raises the question of whether or not Canadian democracy is robust enough to absorb and process the threat of terror and still maintain its integrity.
The erosion of community and the growing individualism in Canada over the past 20 years creates conditions that make us more vulnerable to the politics of fear. The stronger the community and the more we feel connected to it and to each other, the less likely we will react with fear when such incidents occur. If we don't feel connected to each other, if we don't feel we understand the place we live, we are more likely to accept self-interested definitions by others of what the threat is.
We fear the unknown. And the less we feel we "know" our own place, the more vulnerable we are.
That, in part, explains why Americans are so susceptible to the fear tactics of the Bush administration. The U.S. is the most individualistic of all western democracies, with people defining themselves more as consumers than as citizens. Americans typically know less about their democracy than many foreigners know. They remain baffled over why so many people in so many countries "hate" them. Margaret Thatcher used to say of Britain that there was no such thing as society, "just families and individuals pursuing their own interests." That description never actually applied to Britain, but is has a disturbing ring of truth in the U.S.
Americans resemble largely disconnected consumer units, isolated from each other, from their communities, from the rest of the diverse world, and more attuned to reality television than to reality itself. It leaves them perpetually fearful of the unknown (remember Bowling for Columbine?) and reliant on a "tough" leader who they trust to know what they don't.
Bush has played this cultural reality like a fiddle, declaring orange alerts for no reason, hyping bird flu, creating the Iran crisis where none exists, and generally keeping the majority of the population off-balance. The fear tactic clearly has it limits as Bush's poll numbers reveal. But the exploiting of fear is not done yet. Even the arrest of the gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight has allowed some of the more opportunistic U.S. politicians and pundits to play the fear card in the U.S.
The Canadian difference
Canadians fortunately retain a good deal of their collective identity. They still feel a part of their communities and they are not so attached to consuming and to television entertainment that they can't differentiate between the horror of 9/11 and a bunch of deluded young people fantasizing about blowing things up and chopping people's heads off. We are far better placed to digest the revelation of an alleged terrorist plot and return to normal than our cousins south of the border.
Even Stephen Harper knows this and despite his affinity for Bush and Republican ideology, he has, so far, not tried to exploit the situation as much as some expected. He even joked about the plan to "behead" him, though no doubt he knew before we did that this particular fantasy was abandoned early on because the evil-doers were afraid they couldn't find their way around Ottawa. He certainly knows much more than we do still, having been briefed on every detail. Perhaps he has been told that the sting operation regarding the three tons of fertilizer was actually initiated by CSIS and the RCMP. Was the large amount ordered by the hapless plotters, or was that amount suggested by those running the sting? We likely won't know that until the trial.
Harper could be simply biding his time, polling and using focus groups to determine how to play the issue. Whatever he decides, his foreign policy regarding the Middle East and the Bush administration is fraught with danger. He has been aping Bush with the deliberately provocative theory that "we are a target because of who we are and how we live." This is the holy war gambit and was designed by Bush to rationalize his position that the war on terror will literally never be over. Why? Well, if they hate us for who we are -- and not for our actual policies and actions in the world -- then there is nothing we can do short of becoming something else.
Why would we not believe the internal communications between the 17 arrested in Ontario when it comes to the reasons for their plotting? After all they didn't expect us to be reading their e-mails, so presumably they actually believed what they were writing. Their stated reason for the alleged plot, and the basis for their recruitment of others, was Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. They were going to kidnap politicians and demand Canada's withdrawal from Afghanistan as the condition for their release. It sounds like a believable motive -- more believable, at least, than the notion that people who have mostly integrated into Canadian society "hate us for who we are."
How serious was this threat? It seems clear that CSIS could have put a stop to it at any point since 2004 when they first discovered it, something they claim to have done with a dozen similar plots just by letting the terrorist wannabes know that they were on to them. Why didn't they? If the purpose of intelligence gathering was to stop the plots, why let this one go on for so long when a single meeting with the leading figures would have shut it down? Is it possible that this conspiracy was allowed to develop in order to "wake Canadians up" as the militarists and pro-Iraq-war pundits keep suggesting is necessary?
Certainly the high drama around the arrests and the court appearances seemed far beyond what was required and created an atmosphere of perceived danger unwarranted by the nature of those arrested and the evidence against them. It had all the atmosphere of a military operation, not a police action. Did the RCMP think that another band of unemployed teenagers was going to mount a rescue attempt? Many civil rights experts and lawyers questioned the actions and worried that they would undermine the possibility of a fair trial.
While CSIS and the RCMP seemed to be doing everything possible to convince Canadians that the terrorist risk is high, there seems to be little effort by anyone to call for a thorough debate about Canada's Middle East policy. The Harper government has dramatically upped the ante in Afghanistan, and has decisively shifted towards Israel and away from Palestinians in what is possibly the most important of all issues to Arab Muslims, including Arab Canadians. Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay seem poised to support Bush on Iran as well -- an extremely dangerous stance given that it might drag us into unsanctioned support for military action.
Stay cool, calm, collected
Canadians can be relieved that our security forces identified this apparent plot (serious or otherwise) early on and ensured that it was nipped in the bud. But our current policies towards the Middle East make further plots more likely. Harper's knee-jerk support of the U.S. means we also buy into its clash-of-civilizations ideology, increasing the likelihood that the next plot will be more serious.
Canadians are not wracked by fear and thus have no need of a "tough" leader. They need and want a government that develops foreign policy based on both our national interests and on our traditional international goals of peace and justice. Stephen Harper is moving decisively -- in the opposite direction.
He's also planning to introduce legislation easing rules on eavesdropping on Canadians, even as two recent court decisions regarding alleged terrorists say the government is already going too far.
Murray Dobbins writes his 'State of the Nation' column twice a month for The Tyee.
Related Tyee stories: Michael Byers argued that Canada has been complicit in U.S. violations of international law; Judith Ince explored whether terrorism is today's 'yellow peril'; and upon George W. Bush's second election to the presidency, Steve Burgess feared the worst.