Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Politics of Fear

An Ottawa police officer runs with  his weapon drawn

The killing of two Canadian soldiers in the space of about 48 hours has upset many Canadians more than any other event in recent memory, in part because these deaths occurred in Canada, one of them near Montreal and the other in the nation's capital, Ottawa, and not overseas. This is what makes them so terrifying for many people. And this is something that the Conservative government has capitalized on.

The details of these killings are well-known to most Canadians by now, thus I am not going to concern myself with them. Rather I want to discuss what I call the politics of fear.

By the politics of fear I mean the fear that is generated by events such as these, and how politicians manipulate this fear for their own advantage by promising to rescue us from threats that people cannot see and do not understand.

Today the greatest threat is said to be posed by international terrorism, but much of this threat is really a fantasy which politicians have exaggerated and distorted. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned by governments around the world, as well as security services and the international media. This is a form of fear mongering.

Fear mongering has been used for a long time by politicians, but it is also used by advertisers to steer people into making decisions using emotions rather that reason. H.L. Mencken expressed it this way: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

The screen title of the BBC documentary series

The term politics of fear is not original with me. As I discovered after I first wanted to use the term, it is part of the title of a BBC documentary called The Power of Nightmares, with as subtitle, The Rise of the Politics of Fear. The series argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries in an attempt to unite and inspire their people and for the politicians to amass more power.

This series documents how and why that fantasy was created. It also notes who benefits from it: primarily American neo-conservatives and radical Islamists, Both groups were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world, and both have a very similar explanation of what caused that failure.

Together these two groups have created today's nightmare vision of a secret organized evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age.

Now the same politics of fear has arrived in Canada. Soon after Canada committed planes to fight ISIS in Iraq some voices within ISIS had threatened to take the conflict to Canada. That threat has now materialized, at least according to the Conservative government. But is this threat real?

Immediately after these two killings Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointed an accusing finger at ISIS. He claimed that the two men who were responsible were associated with ISIS and part of an ISIS-inspired plot. But there is little evidence for this, and both are, conveniently, dead so that we may never know exactly what inspired them.

Harper addressing the nation after the Ottawa shooting

Harper described these killings as an attack on Canada. He interpreted them as part of a broader bid by terrorist groups to bring “their savagery to our shores.”  And he vowed that his government would take all necessary steps to protect the country, and would work together with its allies to fight ISIS. 

Both Martin Couture-Rouleau  and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had sympathies with ISIS, but that does not mean that they were part of an ISIS plot. Thus their attacks are not enough to justify Canada's participation in the fight against ISIS, as Harper did. Nor should their association with Islam be used to smear all Muslims, as some Canadians are already doing. This is yet another example of Islamophobia.

Couture-Rouleau was a Canadian-born convert to Islam, while Zehaf-Bibeau was the son of a Libyan father and Canadian mother. Both had problems with their parents, and both had a troubled past. Zehaf-Bibeau was well-known to the police as a petty criminal and a drug addict. In addition, he was no longer welcome in his mosque in British Columbia.

Neither man can properly be called a terrorist, at least on the basis of the information I had when I was writing this. The terror they inspired lasted only a few minutes in each case, although the effects linger. We don't call every murder terrorism. But Harper's description of these killings as terrorism is part of the myth making that typifies the politics of fear.

These men did have much in common. They were both self-radicalized individuals who wanted to go and fight with ISIS.  They were lone wolves who had grievances against the government, yet only one of them was under surveillance by the RCMP. One man used a car to kill a soldier, the other used a hunting rifle to shoot a soldier standing guard in front of the War Memorial in Ottawa, yet there is no evidence they were part of a plot. Apparently they did not know each other.

Michael Zahef-Bibeau from an ISIS Twitter account

Both has mental issues, which may be the primary reason for these killings. Thus the government should not get carried away by implementing security measures that will diminish the civil liberties of Canadians.

Security was lax in the Parliament buildings, but that is the result of Government-imposed cutbacks. Tweaking security measures ought to be enough. Canada does not need a repeat of the implementation of the War Measures Act in !970 at the height of the FLQ crisis.

What happened near Montreal and in Ottawa was not part of a terrorist plot, but rather the bizarre acts of two men who happened to have sympathies for ISIS. Canadians should not let themselves be terrorized by them. They should certainly not become fearful as a result.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS want to inspire fear. That is their main strategy. Governments too often react to that fear and try to use it for their political advantage. Hence my use of the term politics of fear. Fear can be generated by terrorists groups such as ISIS, and politicians are easily tempted to use it for their own political advantage.

Fear must never be permitted to erode civil liberties. These are to precious to squander at the hands of of politicians. Instead, Canadians and those in other countries who value these liberties must expose such politicians and show that the emperor is without clothes. What they preach is a myth.

The War Memorial in Ottawa the evening after the shooting

I am not contending that Harper is going to introduce a police state in Canada, but he has displayed enough despotic tendencies in the past to make me wary of his intentions after the recent killings. I do, however, expect him to use these killings in the next federal election, which is scheduled for a year from now. He is already making political hay out of them.

In the election Harper will present himself as the political leader who is best able to protect Canada. He has already demonstrated that, he will argue, by sending planes to Iraq to fight ISIS. And now, by vowing to implement stricter security measures he will appeal to the natural desire of people for security in order to win a further mandate for his party.

Canadians should be careful not allow themselves to be sucked in by Harper's arguments. They must reject the politics of fear,since such politics are based on emotions, not reason and thus they are highly suspect. A healthy hermeneutic of suspicion is needed whenever politicians use fear.

The price for Harper's politics of fear is too high: the loss of civil liberties in Canada. If Canadians want to protect these liberties, they must not reelect Harper in the next election. He is too dangerous in my opinion. He must not be allowed to use the politics of fear to win reelection. The damage he has already done to Canada is incalculable.

Canadians must also be careful not to endorse other politicians we preach a similar message. There are too many politicians of every political stripe who are willing to capitalize on the politics of fear, if this would allow them to gain power or to retain that power. A word to the wise!

1 comment:

  1. I concur! The public needs to understand how politicians capitalize on our fear; they use it to their advantage. Look at all the facts, and make a decision for yourself. Don't be a sheep and follow Harpers beckoning call.